Suffolk County officials have spent the last year and a half changing their minds and debating the benefits and drawbacks of giving a county road, also known as Long Wharf, to the Village of Sag Harbor. But for Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, it is finally time for the county to “fish or cut bait.”
After an hour-long meeting in the Municipal Building on Tuesday, February 14, it appeared as if at the very least Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman was ready to turn over Long Wharf to the village. He is concerned that if the county continues to keep a stake in the facility it will fail to maintain it in a timely fashion and that he may have a legislature not inclined to spend money on an asset that doesn’t directly produce county revenue.
Coupled with those concerns was Mayor Gilbride’s worry that the village needs to adequately plan to fund long-term capital project costs of Long Wharf if it is meant to take the facility over. With the first budget talks slated for this Friday, February 17 at 4 p.m. at the beginning of the Long Wharf Committee meeting, Mayor Gilbride warned the group the village did not want to wait much longer before a final decision was made and he did not want to see the future of Long Wharf hang in the balance of a county committee, with the village still unsure of what it’s financial obligations would be in the long term.
On Tuesday, Schneiderman said he has re-introduced legislation that would give the adjacent Windmill Beach and the property that holds the windmill next to Long Wharf to the village free of charge. That bill will go into committee in March and the legislature could vote on the law by the close of the month, according to Schneiderman’s aide Catherine Stark.
However, Schneiderman acknowledged, the more pressing issue is Long Wharf, and according to Mayor Gilbride while the village is maintaining it and carrying insurance on the facility, it does not have a lease with the county to do just that.
“We have started our budget process,” said Mayor Gilbride. “Our first meeting is Friday and my plan is going on over a year without a lease that if it looks like we are gaining ground here I can hold. But at the end of this budget process we need to either have a deal with the county to renew our 10-year lease, the county needs to have given us the Long Wharf or we are giving the county Long Wharf and you can start maintaining it on a daily basis.”
Mayor Gilbride said without the assurance that a final decision was going to be made, he would turn Long Wharf, and all the daily maintenance that comes with it, over to the county around June 1.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t be ready for that,” said Schneiderman.
“Then we need to start to get somewhere and not drag this out,” said Mayor Gilbride.
Mayor Gilbride said the village has completed repairs at the wharf, dealt with the tragic death of a New Jersey man who fell off the wharf, and has a department of public works constantly maintaining an asset it no longer holds a lease for.
At the beginning of the session, Schneiderman said his goal was to see the county maintain Long Wharf as it serves as a vital part of the economic development of Sag Harbor. He wondered if the village would be willing to share any revenues the wharf generates that go beyond what it needs to maintain the facility. With Response Marine’s Jim Ryan and Hampton Jitney President Geoffrey Lynch in the audience, Schneiderman said the county would also want to be in the loop in terms of what happens on Long Wharf when it comes to events or services, like the passenger ferry service recently suggested by Lynch and Ryan.
“This meeting is not for that,” Mayor Gilbride tersely warned.
Schneiderman argued it was relevant in that if the county was to divest itself of Long Wharf it would want to ensure that the village would still take on initiatives related to the facility that could boost sales tax revenue, which benefits the county coffers.
Mayor Gilbride countered that the Village of Sag Harbor already is doing its fair share in terms of generating sales tax revenues. He pointed to this past weekend’s Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce HarborFrost celebration, the annual HarborFest weekend and that the village in general is booming when it comes to business.
“I am the first mayor that will show up in the records agreeing to take Long Wharf back and even with it bringing in $100,000 a year, I will take that challenge on,” said Mayor Gilbride. “But make no mistake, if I get to the end of the budget process and can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, that wharf will be yours to deal with.”
Liaison to the Suffolk County Legislature from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office, Ben Zwirn, said that he believes the county only looked to Long Wharf as a possible revenue source because it was in such dire financial need.
“And I don’t think they should be looking at this,” said Zwirn. “We invest in downtown areas everywhere. Here, you have a facility that is already built and is a vital part to the downtown of the Village of Sag Harbor, which is the most vibrant of all the villages on the East End.”
Zwirn, an East Hampton resident, noted that village is a ghost town in the off-season.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “This is really, when you talk about downtown revitalization, a model.”
Schneiderman did agree the revenues Sag Harbor brings to the table in sales tax revenue is certainly more than the $100,000 a year the county invests in Long Wharf, but questioned if other legislators would see an asset in the Hamptons as anything but a potential cash cow.
Mayor Gilbride said he would like nothing more than the county and village to reinstate the relationship it has long had — where the village has a 10-year lease for Long Wharf and the county takes care of capital projects. The most recent estimates, released over a year ago by the county’s Department of Public Works estimated that the wharf need over $300,000 in maintenance in the short term, and a total over 600,000 in the next five years.
As a contingency, Mayor Gilbride said if the county transfers ownership of Long Wharf to the village, he plans to put aside $100,000 a year for maintenance. On Tuesday he said it was possible some other plans, including one for a bulkhead on West Water Street or remediation at Havens Beach or upgrades to the Municipal Building could be put on hold if the village needs to start saving for Long Wharf.
Schneiderman again raised the issue of profit sharing, once the village has made the revenue it needs to cover its expenses, but Mayor Gilbride questioned how that formula could be worked out, especially if the wharf actually loses money in a year. Harbor Committee chairman Bruce Tait also noted the wharf needs railings and other improvements to make it pedestrian friendly, critical for any proposals involving the use of Long Wharf for a passenger ferry service to boost revenues.
“Right now, people are either walking in the street or on a very dangerous edge with a significant drop off,” he said.
While Schneiderman again started off stating the county would look at a 10-year lease, he then backtracked, concerned the county would not fund necessary improvements and suggested given the village’s willingness to take Long Wharf the county move in that direction.
“Knowing the county’s fiscal restraints, it might make more sense for you to take it now,” said Schneiderman.
Zwirn said he would also reach out to new County Executive Steve Bellone for a formal opinion.