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Bill Jones

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Bill Jones, Southampton Town Deputy Supervisor

The newly appointed Deputy Supervisor on making government clearer for the public, getting some of the Fed’s Stimulus, and growing up in Sag Harbor. 

 I know you have worked in many levels of local government; could you give our readers some background on your accomplishments?

Sure, in 1988, I was elected trustee in the Sag Harbor village and served there for three years when George Butts was mayor. After that in 1992, I ran for Suffolk County legislature and I served as legislator for two short years, although it seems longer than that. After that, I went to work for the County Executive and I did governmental relations there — doing the county’s lobbying up in Albany for about four and a half years. Subsequent to that, became deputy commissioner of the County’s Department of Social Services, and then came here [town hall] when Linda Gill Martin retired, and Supervisor [Patrick “Skip”] Heaney asked if I would be interested in becoming director of human services, in 2004.

 

How have things changed in local government on the East End in the past few years as someone who has worked at so many levels of government?

Well there has just been an exponential increase in the complexity of running even the smallest unit of government, Mayor Ferraris, who is not running I just saw in the paper, indicated that the amount of time that local officials have to spend is incredible, because every single issue has so much detail. Whether it is by law or just that it is an issue that has been [talked about for] a long time there is a lot of history to many of them. And the resolutions are not self evident by many reasons and they take a lot of time.

Certainly 30 years ago the town board probably met for an hour once a month without any work sessions but now they have work sessions every week plus town board meetings every two weeks — along with all the other boards it’s not as simple as it used to be.

 

Have you seen many changes in village of Sag Harbor governmentally over the years?

Sag Harbor was lucky because it developed later than the rest of the Hamptons. The changes didn’t come piling on for a short period of time, although once it started, it certainly accelerated. Now there is Bulova, and what will happen there, and the other development projects can certainly change the character and the skyline of Sag Harbor, hopefully for the better, but in some cases probably not.

Now, about Ferry Road, [the proposed project next to 7-eleven], it has the potential in my view, but it is changing the skyline to the most negative of any project that is before Sag Harbor right now. It is just the most inappropriate place for a building that size and will make us look like any other discovered waterfront community. I would love for it to go away.

When I was on the village board I had proposed limiting the heights along the waterfront, unfortunately, we did not pass that. Now I really wish it had been enacted. I think it was two and a half stories we suggested at that time.

 

In your new role of deputy supervisor for the town what are some of the main responsibilities or requirements?

The primary function is to act in the absence of the supervisor … if the supervisor is absent from a work session or board meeting than I would conduct that particular meeting but of course I would have no vote. I’m just there to move the process along. I would also represent the supervisor and the town at different inter—governmental functions and meetings etcetera. But of course the job can evolve from there. In this case, the capital budget, and issues surrounding the capital budget and trying to get all the information throughout the years, to be able to update the board as to exactly what is the status of previous projects and as we move forward to make recommendations for future funding for the projects. And from there do whatever I can that can be helpful to the governmental process.

 

I know you haven’t been at the position long, but so far, has there been anything that has been really satisfying for you about your new position of deputy supervisor?

I do enjoy delving into budgets, because of how important I think they are for any municipality, school district or business. So the fact that I’ve come on at a time when we have to dig through the capital program — there is satisfaction for me with that.

I will be at each one of the discussions with regard to the capital as each department head discusses their program. I can lend some clarity — to something that is relatively complicated for those on the outside, [and explain that] the capital budget is different to the operational budget. The process from going from the plan to the actual approval and then to the funding – which can always get quite complicated in terms of the timing and receiving. The revenues for bonds or whatever source of funding it is, can be as clear as mud sometimes, but hopefully I can add some clarity to it.

 

How do you plan on helping the residents of the town understand some of these bigger issues and do you have any new public relations tools in order to keep the residents of the town informed?

Informing the public about municipal affairs is the most challenging part of government. People’s lives are very busy and a lot of the time they really don’t have the time to stay too focused on what’s going on, let alone a process that, in this particular case, is going to span a couple of months.

So we are lucky in Southampton, because we have Sea TV and it is available for the public to tune in. They can see the questions and answers that are going on and they can judge whether something good is happening or not happening … we realize the frustration of government in that the initial headline, which is in this case was negative to the process, is what the public gets to see first and then down the road, if the issue is resolved and it is not quite as bad or not bad at all, then gaining the public’s attention to the issue is often lost and that is frustrating, clearly we hope at the end of this process the board members will feel very comfortable with the process the department heads have followed, along with how we came upon the numbers we will present to them. As well as if we chose someone from the outside to look at our work to reassure them that it is all good. That will be a policy decision that they will make.

Last week, there was talk of a possible forensic audit, has there been any action with that?

Not that I’m aware of, I know it was talked about, but that again will be a policy decision that the board will make.

Personally, I don’t put a lot of credibility on audits. Why? Well, look at Enron, the school districts, look at other local governments on Long Island that all have auditors. What they offer, in my experience, having been around for a long time, is a snapshot in time, and they can change substantially in a short period of time. They don’t really offer a lot to the process in my view. And they can be costly.

Audits are a four letter word, in my view, because they don’t really help the process out.

 

What sort of advice could you give the residents in Southampton in light of the current state of the nation’s economy?

Another happy topic, [laughs], we need people to come out and buy homes — so much flows from that for our economy. Right now there is not a lot of confidence in the prices of homes, so the first challenge is for people to feel comfortable with the value, the actual true value in the area and once they get comfortable, we will start to see that happening.

People want to come out here, and more people would like to make it their year—round home, even coming from the city. I keep hearing stories about people wanting to get out of the city and come this way. And we welcome them. And so much flows from that whether it is contactors or suppliers and all those things that keep people employed, which is key to economic survival of people in our area.

Unfortunately, we have such a multitude of things cost—wise; from LIPA to gas and the list is long. It really makes it difficult for people, the doers here, to live unfortunately. There is not one easy answer to that dilemma.

 

Now what are you preparing for the town of Southampton and are there any plans thus far for the possible stimulus package from the federal government?

The town has prepared a list of infrastructure projects that are part of the stimulus package that the federal government is going to send money down to the state and eventually down to the localities. We have submitted our list to Senator [William] Schuman’s office, and Congressman [Tim] Bishop’s office as well as the state that hopefully will get on the list and some of those “shovel ready” projects might get funded through that process, which would be good.

On the other hand, we cannot put all our eggs in one basket, and while the town is in good shape now for 2009, the situation for 2010 is a different story. This year, a fair amount of that rainy day money, was utilized in order to keep the tax rate within the law and next year that money is not available, or there is a lot less of it, so the question is, how do we continue to fund town functions?

Somebody wants all of these things, otherwise I don’t think we would be doing them, and the moment, we propose to cut back some of those programs, or services, then that always gets the people’s attention — whether it is the town of Southampton, the village of Sag Harbor or Pierson High School, the issues are very real, fiscally, and will take some challenging and controversial decisions to try to keep the books balanced.

 

Could you tell me about your experiences living and watching Sag Harbor change?

I am both blessed and lucky to have grown up in Sag Harbor — it’s a wonderful town with an incredible history. The architecture is phenomenal, the people are phenomenal, and the families have had many good times together. But that is not to say there weren’t some downsides to living in a small town but overall it’s just a time I look back on with a lot of fondness and thankfulness of walking the streets of Sag Harbor … and ringing the bell at Pierson High School … those are some things that I look back on as some really good times.