East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, Secretary of State Cesar Perales, Councilman Dominick Stanzione, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson at town hall Thursday.
By Tessa Raebeck
New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales visited East Hampton Thursday to congratulate town officials on restructuring efforts and receive an update from Supervisor William Wilkinson on the town’s progress in those efforts, which he said aim to improve government efficiency and reduce costs. In June, the town received an award of $536,425 from the New York Department of State’s (DOS) Local Government Performance and Efficiency Program (LGPEP).
“In essence, if a local government is able to show us that they’ve done some things to save money we’re going to reward them,” said Perales. Thirteen municipalities were recognized for their projects, which vary from fire department efficiency initiatives to once per week garbage collection, totaling at $12 million in LGPEP grant assistance around the state.
According to DOS, East Hampton was recognized because the town “realized a savings of $4.2 million dollars through this reengineering initiative, representing an 18-percent drop in the tax levy.”
“We were so very, very impressed with what happened here in East Hampton that we were excited,” continued Perales. “We want to tell the rest of the world that there are local governments that can look at themselves and say, ‘Look, we know we could save money…put together a package that will result in substantial savings in government and make a difference for the tax payers.’ And that’s exactly what was done here.”
When Supervisor Wilkinson took office in 2010, the Town of East Hampton had a deficit of $27 million. The administration worked with state officials, in particular Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and Senator Kenneth LaValle, to avoid declaring bankruptcy, said Wilkinson, and instead “implemented a comprehensive organizational restructuring,” according to a press release issued by the town.
“I think we need to remember what it was like – the finances of this town – just four years ago,” Thiele told the crowd gathered in town hall. “It was four years ago when the town had a deficit of more than $27 million at the time and it was unquestionably a case of government working together.”
In addition to congratulating his team, Wilkinson presented on the process of restructuring and East Hampton’s current financial state.
The first step, according to the supervisor, was identifying the magnitude of the fiscal problem and, once the actual deficit was determined, the next step was to introduce new evaluation techniques.
“We attempted to create this ongoing culture of change,” he said. “That the ways of doing things in the past aren’t acceptable any more.”
Rather than enacting massive layoffs, the administration created incentives for government employees to leave their positions voluntarily, according to Wilkinson, who said that out of around 90 terminations only one was not through attrition. Through consolidation, the number of government departments was downsized from 26 to 13.
“We introduced the seasonality model for really the first time,” said Wilkinson. “The Town of East Hampton goes from 22,500 people all year round then you’ll see in any weekend in Montauk or Amagansett up to 100,000 in the summer time. We shouldn’t have the same model.” In order to have additional help on hand during the season without paying for unnecessary labor in the off-season, the town created a part-time workforce.
Wilkinson and his team also introduced zero based budgeting, a model that requires departmental managers to justify all items on their budgets each year, instead of only variances from past years, so that they are “starting new every year.”
“We shouldn’t change our behavior whether we’re in good shape or poor shape,” said the supervisor. “Our behavior should be good business, sound business decision making regardless.”
In addition to enacting new principles of financial discipline, the administration also identified new sources of non-tax revenue, said Wilkinson. The town sold surplus assets, re-evaluated fees and fines, analyzed the cost-effectiveness of leasing vehicles rather than purchasing them and privatized public facilities, such as the Arena, Amagansett’s indoor roller hockey and soccer facility.
“At that time, it was my judgment and the board’s judgment that we weren’t in the recreation business,” said Wilkinson, who also privatized the tennis courts on Abraham’s Path.
“Transparency’s tough, democracy’s even tougher,” said the supervisor. “You have to stay the course and ensure that those goals are communicated.”
The LGPEP grants will be distributed to East Hampton in equal parts over three years, provided that the town demonstrates continued savings.
“Those efforts were not simply a snapshot in time,” assured Wilkinson. “They continue every day.
“You’ve done a fabulous job, it’s our job now to reward you,” Perales said, congratulating the administrative team. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to go around the state telling other towns and villages that East Hampton has done it, you guys can do it as well.”