Ed McDonald has lived in Sag Harbor for five years, but being born and raised in East Hampton, generations of his family steeped in Bonacker history, McDonald feels deeply connected to the town.
“I am very highly invested in East Hampton,” said McDonald. “I feel like a traitor moving to Sag Harbor.”
Light-hearted groans erupted when McDonald admitted he lived on the Southampton side of Sag Harbor.
However, McDonald was one of roughly 60 people who turned out on a brisk Saturday afternoon at East Hampton High School for a special town board meeting aimed at setting new priorities as the town moves through solving a multi-million fiscal crisis under a newly-elected Republican administration. Residents expressed concerns about the estimated $25 million to $30 million deficit the town faces, the impact that could have on services and East Hampton’s commitment to preserving and protecting its environment.
“I love my town,” said McDonald. “I was very much embarrassed by the situation that came up with financial irresponsibility. I know you guys are going to put things back together.”
However, McDonald said he also hopes the new board continues to preserve open space, noting it has enabled East Hampton to preserve its character and unique beauty that makes it a special place to live, and visit.
“If the financial crisis were not our first priority, then the environment would be,” said Supervisor Bill Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, who was joined by Republican board members Theresa Quigley and Dominick Stanzione as well as board member Pete Hammerle at the forum, explained the public input session was designed to bring transparency and inclusiveness to town government.
“Our intent here is to listen,” he said.
Like McDonald, Springs resident Barbara Jordan said she was concerned about any plans the town had to sell property it owns.
“I think it is being penny wise and pound foolish because whatever we sell we will be selling at a loss and land is finite,” she said.
“Our focus on land is not just for the purpose of dealing with the economy, but also to look at the properties we own and ask ourselves, why do we need them,” said Quigley.
Wilkinson added the land the town is contemplating selling is not preserved or protected land, and they would not be considering it but for the fact they are stuck dealing with an estimated $30 million in accumulated debt from the last administration.
Northwest Woods resident Jennifer Mulligan, a second homeowner who served on a financial committee that made recommendations to the town board in the wake of the deficit, quizzed the board on when financial information from the town auditors would be available to the public. She also suggested, as a means of generating revenue, the board could create naming opportunities at the new town hall, which is in the midst of construction. Lastly, Mulligan asked the board take a look at the town recycling center and whether it would be more costly to privatize the facility or charge contractors more than single families to dump there.
From a financial standpoint, Wilkinson said, “I can’t tell you how many surprises there are on a daily basis. The focus is trying to still get to the bottom of where we are and set the tone for our expectations dealing with the crisis we are in.”
Budget officer Len Bernard explained his office is attempting to get its arms around creating a system for capital projects that will allow the town to keep track of finances on a project-by-project basis. Bernard added the town is expecting an auditors’ report in the next two to three weeks as well as a report detailing the spending from CPF for 2008 at the end of this week.
“We are just about to reformulate the budget advisory committee, which will have an expanded footprint,” added board member Dominick Stanzione. That committee, which has focused on the annual town budget, will now also look at the CPF budget and the capital budget.
This week, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and Senator Ken LaValle also announced plans to work with East Hampton in increasing the town’s deficit financing through the state.
“Somehow we owe $28 million,” said Quigley. “We don’t have a choice here.”
Quigley said the town needs to make up that money either by raising taxes, bonding or selling assets and has decided the latter two methods will be easiest on taxpayers.
“We are not increasing the deficit,” said Wilkinson. “We are trying to deal with the cards we have been dealt.”
“Right now we are trying to figure out where the $25 million to $30 million went,” explained Bernard, who said the auditors’ report should detail what accounts were borrowed from during the last administration to cover annual expenses.
While members of East Hampton’s Guild Hall and Phoenix House, a substance abuse center, both implored the board to increase funding for their programming, resident Mary Jean Pinto said before the town spends money in any one direction it should have a handle on what the true demographics and needs of the community are.
“I feel we cannot serve a community whose numbers are unknown,” she said, imploring the board to make an effort to communicate more with the public, using the town’s website as a resource.
Stanzione and Wilkinson agreed understanding who government serves, and in what capacity it should, is a key question. Wilkinson added it is his belief that social programs should be supported, in part, by the town.
“Others may not agree with me,” he offered.