The future ownership of Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, which for over a year now has been debated by Suffolk County and Sag Harbor Village officials, will not likely be decided until after a new Suffolk County Executive is sworn into office.
Despite that, a group of county and village officials gathered in Sag Harbor’s Municipal Building on Tuesday afternoon in a brainstorming session on how to increase revenues on Long Wharf to make it self sustaining. The session also continued the debate over whether Suffolk County should retain ownership of Long Wharf, and continue to fund capital improvements, or whether the Village of Sag Harbor, which maintains Long Wharf’s surface and collects fees from dockage, should be given the roadway and pay for its long-term upkeep.
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, the chairman of this Long Wharf Advisory Committee, explained this debate actually began when current Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy discovered the county owns Long Wharf, not Sag Harbor.
Schneiderman said that similar to a number of system roads in Suffolk County, the county took ownership of Long Wharf from Sag Harbor Village as it was eligible for state and federal funding for capital improvements. He estimated the capital improvements needed at Long Wharf cost Suffolk County, which is looking down the barrel of an almost $200 million hole in its 2012 budget, about $100,000 a year to fund.
Originally, the county executive hoped to just give Long Wharf to the village, but the legislature viewed the wharf as a county asset and voted against that proposal.
Much will depend on who will lead the county next year — Democrat Steve Bellone and Republican Angie Carpenter are vying for the position in this year’s November 8 election — said Schneiderman. He added a new law allows the superintendent of the county’s Department of Public Works to give Long Wharf to Sag Harbor Village without the legislature’s consent, if the village will take it.
“I am not sure that is the best solution,” said Schneiderman, adding he would like to see the county and village partner in looking for ways to increase revenues on Long Wharf and share those revenues, so ideally both the village and the county can break even on Long Wharf’s maintenance.
From the village’s perspective, Mayor Brian Gilbride said he would like to see the county and village maintain its previous agreement, where the village maintains the wharf’s basic upkeep and the county takes on the capital projects.
Gilbride said the village spends about $50,000 a year on maintenance, and collects between $57,000 and $107,000 in dockage from the wharf. If the village is to take over ownership, Gilbride said he has explored setting up a reserve fund to cover capital costs, although with a small budget and a two-percent tax cap finances are certainly a concern.
The money the village spends to maintain Long Wharf, added Gilbride, does not include the cost of policing the wharf or for the Harbormaster’s services.
“The one thing I want to make clear is I don’t think a lot of money is left to be split in revenue sharing with the county,” said Gilbride.
Schneiderman countered the county is facing a looming financial crisis as well, and doesn’t get any revenues out of Long Wharf.
Former Deputy County Executive Ben Zwirn, who now works for Bellone, disagreed.
Zwirn argued the county spends millions in downtown revitalization, and the Long Wharf is a part of Sag Harbor that provides critical parking and draws people to the village, increasing the amount of sales tax revenue the county collects from Sag Harbor businesses.
“My recommendation would be the county should control and maintain it as it is a boon to economic development,” he said.
Schneiderman said he would still like to explore increasing revenue, by allowing more boats, increasing dock fees or bringing in a winter attraction like an ice rink. A passenger ferry was another idea, he said.
Gilbride countered a passenger ferry is against village code.
“There is a lot lacking in upland support for that, particularly parking,” agreed Harbor Committee chairman Bruce Tait. He added a lot of the enhancements that would make Long Wharf more profitable, including making it more pedestrian friendly, would also cost money to develop.
Schneiderman suggested a Friends of the Long Wharf Committee could be set up to fundraise as a not-for-profit entity, similar to those that support the Big Duck in Flanders or the Montauk Lighthouse.
The committee agreed to reconvene after November 8, when the new county executive is elected to office.