Â Finding a parking space at East Hampton Town Hall on Tuesday morning was difficult at best as dozens of residents crowded a hearing on the proposed 2009 budget, many calling for the board to reinstate funding for youth recreation and cultural programs. A number of programs have seen severe cuts in grant assistance from the town as it tries to meander through creating a budget in the face of a multi-million dollar deficit.
Under the newly released proposed 2009 budget, residents in the Town of East Hampton are looking down the barrel of a 22-percent tax increase, up from the 18-percent tax increase presented in the tentative $67 million budget. According to East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, the increase comes despite the fact the town board made some $250,000 in cuts from the tentative budget, in part due to a contractual obligation to fund the East Hampton YMCA RECenter. The RECenter is slated to receive $600,000, down from just over $700,000. The town had originally cut funding to the RECenter before realizing it had another year in its obligation to fund the facility to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
McGintee added that increases in the proposed budget have also been made in estimated salary increases for police officers, and debt service on loans the town is paying back to cover a projected debt that could reach as high as $12 million by the end of 2009.
But on Tuesday, October 28, town hall was packed with residents more concerned with the lack of funding for programs geared towards the youth of East Hampton. While their voices made up a majority of the pleas uttered during the hearing, a number of residents also decried the proposed tax increases, calling for a stop to the conversion of a number of historic homes into a new town hall, as well as asking for a hiring freeze – some even going as far to say that jobs should be cut.
In the proposed budget over $120,000 has been cut in grant assistance from the town to organizations like local chambers of commerce, school parent teacher organizations, the East Hampton Day Care, Guild Hall and The Retreat, to name a few. Virtually all the groups had representation at the hearing, many pointing out to the board that their funding is limited, coming from the town, through fundraising and dues, and through minimal grants from the county and state.
Ruth Appelhof, executive director of Guild Hall, was the first to speak, urging the board to reconsider its decision to cut financing to the theatre and gallery, which has operated in the town for some 77 years. Appelhof noted Guild Hall prides itself on its educational outreach to the 11 schools in the Town of East Hampton, which in part was funded through the original $17,000 the town granted to the cultural institution. In the last three years, noted Appelhof, funding has decreased to $15,000, but this year, in the face of possibly receiving no assistance from the town, Appelhof said she was very concerned about the future of programs like drama literacy, Art Link, the Student Arts Festival and Word Up, a four week workshop for children with special needs in the town.
“We have 40,000 people come to Guild Hall every year and there is no one more important than the kids of our community,” said Appelhof.
“I am against the size of this tax increase,” said resident, businessman and volunteer fireman Michael Forst plainly. “I am against cutting any child related services.”
Forst said the East Hampton community was just beginning to feel the impact of the worldwide financial crisis, and the budget needs to be looked at critically and cut wherever possible to limit the size of a tax increase this year. Forst said, “… government needs to shrink,” and went as far to say that may mean jobs need to be cut.Â
“I am here today to cry for help,” said Jennifer Wilson, a single mom of two young daughters and a board member of the East Hampton Day Care.
The day care center is looking at a 25 percent decrease in assistance from $100,000 to $75,000. Wilson noted that the center provides care to those who pay tuition and those who cannot afford it, offering education, recreation and breakfast and lunch. Wilson added that with the economic crisis likely to hit home, the day care center will be an even more essential necessity for residents in the town of East Hampton, many of whom will not be able to afford private child care.
“So I am asking for help on behalf of the smallest members of our community,” she said.
Thomas Quinn, superintendent of The Springs School, spoke on behalf of Project Most – a popular after school program for children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade held at a number of schools in the town – and the town’s youth court program, both of which are looking at funding cuts.
“Project Most is an essential program at Springs School,” said Quinn, noting the after school program has grown to serve over 100 children and while the school does set aside money to fund the service, it needs assistance from the town.
The youth court, added Quinn, whose own children have been a part of, is also a crucial program, providing children the opportunity to learn about the justice system, as well as the effect of one’s actions on the community at large.
Debbie Skinner, director of the Youth Advocacy Resource Development (YARD) program, which was founded a decade ago by Sag Harbor School District administration and school board to provide programming for at risk youth, also approached the board in hopes of having that program’s funding reinstated through the $5,000 grant the town usually provides to the Pierson PTSA.
“I just have to take a deep breath because I know what [the board] is going through,” said Laraine Creegan, director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. Creegan noted the importance of the chamber of commerce in bringing tourism – a major source of the region’s economy – to the area. Revenues are increased, she noted, in the number of people the chambers entice to the town each season through advertising and events.
“It is essential for the chamber to market the East End,” she said, noting a majority of the chamber’s funding actually comes from fundraising and dues.
While a number of speakers were at the hearing on behalf of organizations, another group of residents offered their opinions on what the town can do to keep tax increases at a minimum.
Amagansett resident Robert Wick advocated that the town eliminate the autumn leaf pick up program, which would save about half a million dollars a year. While the leaf pick up program is in place for this season, Wick said the Montauk and Amagansett Citizen Advisory Committees have both agreed it should be eliminated in the future. Wick noted mowing leaves back into a lawn is actually healthier for the grass.
“The East Hampton Business Alliance is deeply concerned about budget issues,” said a solemn Margaret Turner. Turner charged the town has overspent and has not been open or public in its budget process. She said independent, competent budget advisors were necessary in the town, and called for an immediate freeze on hiring, with the exception of “a qualified business administrator.” Turner also suggested overtime be eliminated, as well as salary raises and asked the town move forward in a fashion where it incurs less legal expenses.
East Hampton Town resident Joe Lombardi added he would like to see spending frozen on all historic projects, including the town hall project, which drew applause from the audience. He also said the pool of town vehicles should be reduced, the town should start charging fees for outdoor events on the town beaches and land preservation should cease.
“I love hiking in our beautiful trails, but enough is enough … we can always go and buy land when we have enough funds,” he said.
The town board will continue to accept written comments on the budget through November 4, said board member Pete Hammerle, and will discuss all comments on the spending plan at its Thursday, November 6 meeting.Â