Similar Issues, Different Tacks

Posted on 13 January 2012

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By Bryan Boyhan

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson may have more in common than most think. Aside from being the heads of governments in the two South Fork townships, they have faced many similar issues in the past two years — not the least is inheriting governments with crushing deficits.

The pair were the guests of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons on Monday night at a public forum held at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. An audience of about 50 tossed out questions and, finding common ground, gained a bit of insight into how the leaders addressed problems both big and small.

“You had to bring up the leaf pickup,” laughed Throne-Holst while Wilkinson smiled and rolled his eyes to a question from LWV member Judy Ross about how the two supervisors approached the issue so differently.

“Southampton went to brown bags and East Hampton just dropped the program cold turkey,” observed Ross.

“The decision was not made by the board, but by the highway superintendent,” Throne-Holst continued. This year, homeowners were not allowed to simply pile their leaves in front of their houses for pick-up (with some exceptions) as they had in years past. Instead they were to acquire town bags for pickup or haul the leaves themselves. The move was ostensibly to cut costs, but has been widely criticized.

“Once we’ve had the program for a full year we’ll be able to evaluate it better,” said Throne Holst. “If we were in better economic times, we could easily say this wouldn’t be as a big a problem.”

Wilkinson acknowledged that economics were a factor in his board’s decision to cancel the leaf program.

“No kidding, I was told in the first week [of his tenure] that we had to declare bankruptcy,” said Wilkinson who became supervisor just as the town was facing a multi-million deficit. “I had to decide what services I had to cut. Not cops, not lifeguards, not senior programs. That was the backdrop to the leaf decision.”

The economy has played a large role in both administrations. Throne-Holst inherited a broken process that left the town with a multi-million dollar deficit while Wilkinson’s predecessor put the town into a $30 million hole through mismanagement. Audience members wondered how such problems would not arise again.

“I’m under review by the state comptroller, which ratchets it up a bit,” said Wilkinson, who borrowed money from the state to make up the deficit. “We’re putting in controls that should have been there all along.”

“I think we share that,” said Throne-Holst. “Our issues are different, but they exposed a lack of control.” While Southampton didn’t pursue state financing, they have since added controls.

“There are new policies and procedures, from purchasing to overtime to transfer of funds; just about none of that can happen without town council resolution,” she said.

Audience member Nada Barry wondered what cooperative efforts there were between the towns and other municipalities in purchasing and shared services.

“It’s something we pursue on a regular basis,” said Wilkinson, although he conceded later there is little the towns do together.

“The savings are in purchasing through state contracts,” said Wilkinson. “Am I sitting down with Anna trying to figure out if we can save money on buying paper towels? No.”

“Savings are in bigger purchases,” agreed Throne-Holst, “which is why we’re looking at a health consortium.”

Throne-Holst explained that the supervisors from all the towns in Suffolk County are currently looking into a joint purchase of health insurance for their employees — notoriously one of the most expensive parts of a budget. She said a similar proposal through another association, the East End Mayors and Supervisors, stalled; but she is more confident the larger numbers will make it more appealing.

“It all has to do with the economy of scale,” she said.

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