Which supervisor candidate in the Town of East Hampton is best equipped to handle the town’s financial crisis was at the root of a majority of the questions posed during a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate between the town supervisor candidates on Thursday night at the East Hampton Firehouse and Emergency Services Building.
Republican and Independence Party candidate Bill Wilkinson opened the forum by noting he predicted the financial mismanagement of the town during a failed supervisor race against Bill McGintee in 2007.
Two weeks ago, McGintee resigned from his post as supervisor of the town. The resignation came amid criticisms from the state comptroller about the financial health of East Hampton, a multi-million budget deficit and in the wake of the arrest of budget officer Ted Hults who faces felony charges related to the financial mismanagement of the town.
“For three years I have spoken about the corrective actions necessary,” said Wilkinson. He said during the same period, Democrats were looking to their party leadership for answers – answers they did not receive. While noting Ben Zwirn, the Democratic and Working Families candidate for town supervisor, had nothing to do with the financial crisis, Wilkinson added he also did not take his party to task for the situation.
“Instead the East Hampton Democratic committee and my opponent stood silent,” he said.
“We have gone through one of the most traumatic periods in this town’s history,” replied Zwirn. “We are rudderless.”
Zwirn said Wilkinson would like residents to believe it was the Democratic Party at fault for the town’s budget crisis.
“It wasn’t a party that caused this problem, it was people,” he said, noting both McGintee and town council member Pat Mansir were once Republicans, and that state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and county legislator Jay Schneiderman have both left the Republican Party.
“Does that make them anything less,” asked Zwirn. “Of course not.”
“For three years Bill Wilkinson has been going around town pointing fingers,” said Zwirn. “That is not a plan.”
The question on everyone’s mind was asked first by East Hampton Star editor David Rattray, who wondered what the candidate’s budget plans entailed and how they differed.
Wilkinson noted his slate came out with their plan on September 25, waiting late in the race because “we didn’t want to politicize it.”
“We are the only group that has recognized the 800-pound gorilla in the room and that is a $28 million deficit,” said Wilkinson. Wilkinson said his team’s financial plan aims to prevent a one time tax increase by increasing the amount of deficit financing currently provided to the town by the State of New York.
“I am tired of the poor people of East Hampton bearing the burden of financial malfeasance by the town board,” said Wilkinson, adding both Assemblyman Thiele and state senator Ken LaValle have endorsed this plan
Zwirn criticized the Republican’s plan, first noting that a $28 million deficit has yet to be confirmed with the books in 2009 still open.
“That number is not real until it is certified by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli,” said Zwirn, adding whether to bond over a long or short term period to cover the deficit will be contingent on the final figure.
Zwirn said the major difference between the two plans, is while the Republican plan focuses on the deficit, Zwirn believes over-spending is also key.
“If you keep spending more money than you have we will have deficit financing forever,” he said, questioning where the Republicans plan to cut an estimated $10 million in 2011 with costs predicted to rise across the board..
“They don’t tell you what jobs, what programs, will be affected,” said Zwirn.
Zwirn said whoever is elected should take office immediately following the election, and his first order of business would be to go after the town’s independent auditors, Albrecht, Viggiano and Zureck, for half a million dollars for budget software they recommended, and sold, to the town that has never worked.
Continuing to maintain that spending needs to be cut in the town, Zwirn said, “The reason we survived without any problems is because the real estate market was booming.” Now, with a downturn in the housing market nationally, Zwirn said the town has been left with an unsustainable budget.
While Zwirn said he believed educating the public on the benefits of a town-wide reassessment, which would benefit homeowners in Springs and on the Sag Harbor side of East Hampton, he added safety measures, such as a four-percent cap, would need to be put in place to ensure elderly homeowners were not negatively affected.
Wilkinson said after building his own home two years ago, and suffering through reassessment, he views it as a dramatic adjustment and not one to be made with such a large deficit to contend with.
“I think it will cost us $3 million to do an assessment of the Town of East Hampton,” saying the town’s focus should be on reducing the deficit.
The hiring of a professional town manager, similar to a system of government used in East Hampton Village, has been posed at several town board meetings. While Wilkinson said he would wait a few quarters to decide on that issue, he believed it was important enough to ask the town’s comptroller Janet Verneuille to budget in the expense.
“It is a form of government that has worked well in other municipalities,” said Zwirn, who said ultimately he believes such a shift in government should be approved by voters in a referendum.
Wilkinson said referendum rules could be avoided in the job description of a town manager, making the decision one for the town board.
“I think that is a good distinction between you and I,” said Zwirn. “I think it should be [the people’s] choice, not three or four people sitting on a board.”