For the first time in years, the Village of North Haven will hold a contested election with three candidates seeking two open spots on the village board: incumbents Jeff Sander and Jim Smyth will run against newcomer Lawrence LaRose. The Sag Harbor Express sat down with the three North Havenites and discussed everything from preservation, to communication and… oh yeah, cell towers.
Sag Harbor Express (SHE): North Haven residents have had a level tax rate for many years now. Is the village in a position to give its residents a tax break, and would that be wise?
Jim Smyth: We haven’t raised the taxes in over four years. We just completed our budget in the last month with no increase and I don’t see anything coming down in the future … Some of the concerns about the village revenue is because of the economy and the lack of building. But comparing North Haven to other communities or towns throughout the country, we’re pretty stable.
Lawrence LaRose: I would agree. It’s wonderful we’ve had a stable tax base for the last four years, but I don’t think we’re in a position to give a tax break at this point, just because of the uncertainties that are in front of us.
Jeff Sander: I kind of agree with Lawrence and Jim. We are fortunate enough to have a surplus in the village. When things get better, and if we had a significant increase in revenues from mortgage taxes and building permits, there might be a possibility, if the surplus increases, to reduce the rate. But right now, because of the uncertainty, which Lawrence mentioned, I think it’s not wise to do that.
SHE: Are there areas where the village should be spending more? And where, if anywhere, should the village cut back?
LaRose: I don’t know if I’d look to spend more at this time. I haven’t heard of a dramatic need to spend more money at this point in time. But there are some areas we can tap into to gain revenue.
I think we have to look hard at the way that our building permits are delivered. If we had a $100,000 decrease in activity, are there ways to create efficiency within that department so that we aren’t spending as much to service those permits, until that bounces back? I would also look to reducing the tennis court fee. If you look at the budget over the last few years, the tennis court fee monies received have gone down by 50 percent. At the same time, we’ve raised the court fee by 100 percent — it’s doubled, which is completely counterintuitive, that we’ve raised less money, charging more.
Sander: I would agree. It’s not wise to try to spend more, and I don’t think we really need to. Each year when we do the budget, we look at opportunities for cut-backs and we look at places where we can reduce some spending. But, a significant amount of our budget is pretty fixed with fire-and-ambulance contracts with the village of Sag Harbor and salaries for the three people we have on staff.
Smyth: Over the years, we project what we need done, we set aside the money, and then once the new budget kicks in, most of the expenditures that the government has have already kind of been allocated. We had a lot of trouble last winter with the rains on Seely Lane and Sunset Lane. I don’t see any great need [to increase spending].
LaRose: I think there are some areas that might warrant a look to save money, not to cut the program or cut the initiative, but to get at a better rate.
Insurance is a big line item on our budget. And it might be worth our time to address that by looking at another kind of health-driven insurance company. Also, in terms of our grounds keeping both at village hall and at the roundabout, could we off-set that with a competitive bid from another vendor with a very discreet, kind of, “thank you” advertisement for a short period of time, and in respect of that marketing placard they would give us a better rate?
Sander: First of all, most of the things that are expensive things on the budget, like grounds maintenance, we do get competitive quotes on. But, the thought about advertising, that may be something that could be interesting to look at.
SHE: Do you think the village is getting its fair share of the Community Preservation Fund (CPF)? Should the village be more aggressive in trying to get CPF money, and are there specific parcels that you would like to target for preservation?
Sander: Whether we get our fair share or not, I’m not sure. But, we certainly have been able to get monies in the past, and I think we’ve done a lot for preservation. But, you know, the big lots, the big parcels in North Haven that could potentially be candidates for development have pretty much all been accounted for.
Smyth: I think we’ve taken advantage of that kind of funding when the situation arises. But, I mean really look and canvas the village, there aren’t many spots left.
LaRose: I think that as a potential board member I would, like Jeff and Jim, pounce on anything we could potentially grab for preservation, if it’s feasible and economically viable.
SHE: What is one issue you think residents most misunderstand about the efforts to enhance cell phone reception in North Haven?
Smyth: Every town, village, everybody has a paper and you have to put public notices in it. And one of the frustrating things is when situations arise and we think we’re doing the right thing by issuing public notices and announcements. We were just going through a process in order to address a concern that some people brought to us, and at no time did we ever have a contract to build the stupid thing. We hadn’t signed any deals, we hadn’t made any offers, we just had a presentation because a presentation is educational. And everybody in the village was more than welcome to be there.
LaRose: I don’t doubt that the village had done the legal minimum to notify people, But, not everyone reads the paper in North Haven. I would like to see the village adopt an opt-in email list, so that everyone can receive either on their computer or cell phone updates on what’s going to be discussed next week or next month at these village meetings so they don’t feel like they’ve been surprised.
Sander: I agree, I think the people I talked to gave the same feedback. I think most people feel like they weren’t aware. It’s a very tough situation. As Jim said, we as well as many governments primarily communicate with the press.
I think the idea of an email list is an excellent one.
So, it’s unfortunate there’s been a lot of miscommunication and we’re going to look at a lot of ways to mitigate that for other issues that come up, and improve getting the word out.
LaRose: I think the issue wasn’t just miscommunication, it was lack of communication. I think we have to do better than just rely on The Sag Harbor Express. I think we still need to get to the residents. A lot of them don’t even live here in January and February, but they should still get an opinion on what goes on. We’re very happy to take their tax revenue, and we should be just as happy to take their opinions.
SHE: What are the most important issues you think the village will have to tackle in the next couple of years?
LaRose: The biggest thing right now is the cell tower, that’s the thing uppermost in people’s minds. I think people were a bit surprised by the fact that the board had one presentation by one company and then they changed the zoning code. There was no discussion with other vendors, with other opportunities.
And I’m very heartened that Jeff has reached out. He wants to get together and talk about the DAS solution and learn more so that he can help inform the board so that we make a very intelligent decision that preserves the North Haven that we know and love and also improves cell phone service for those who need it. And whether that’s a smaller tower, whether that’s a DAS system, or whether that’s a hybrid system will remain to be seen. But, I think the investigative process is uppermost right now.
Sander: The cell tower issue is obviously the one that’s on the table. We wouldn’t even be discussing this if Lawrence came in with all his wisdom, which he put in The Express, two weeks ago and sat down with the board. We’re not experts in cell phone communication. We would have taken that input, which we’re going to do now, and we would have pursued it. It’s unfortunate that we had it communicated in the way it did.
Smyth: To get away from cell towers … one of the things that’s been dear to my heart for many years — because I’ve lived on the water off Mashomuck Drive for 30-some-odd years — is the docks.
Every time there’s an application, every time there’s a house that turns over, they immediately want a dock. And what really ticks me off is they all have this concept that they can use boat lifts.
They’re ruining the vistas that the community has, which are so beautiful.
SHE: What are two to three initiatives that you hope to spearhead?
Jeff: I think the thing about communication has always concerned me, and it’s concerned me in the past, this latest issue has just raised it again.
Jim: No more docks! [laughs] I’m just proud to be a resident and I’m proud to have been on the board, because it’s such a special, special place.
LaRose: I think the communication issue that we discussed is going to be paramount. I’d also like to help on transparency issues. I wanted to catch-up on some board minutes and I had to go down to village hall, I had to fill out a Freedom of Information Act, and I had to tender some money to find out what was going on in my board room when I wasn’t there. If I want to find out what’s going on in Sagaponack, I just go online and all of their minutes are right there for anyone to read. And I think that would be a great service and would be helpful to our residents to help keep them attuned to what’s going on when they’re living here, or when they’re vacationing somewhere else.