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Oct 21, 2008 12:55 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Crowd decries impending tax increase

Oct 21, 2008 12:55 PM

With an 18-percent tax hike on the table and an even larger one possibly in the cards, a groups of angry East Hampton residents had spending cuts and rolling heads on their minds at a public forum in Amagansett on Monday night.

The dormant Town Hall project and just about anything to do with the Community Preservation Fund were targets of the advice givers at Monday’s meeting in the American Legion Hall, which was billed as a non-political chance for people to air their concerns. Republican Committee vice chair Trace Duryea was a key organizer, as she was of a previous gripe session held last summer.

“There should be a spending freeze,” said former town councilwoman Diana Weir, who introduced herself as “a recovering politician.”

“I think there should be an immediate freeze on CPF purchases. We should just wait—no purchases until we can figure out what the heck went on with that money,” she said, referring to the borrowing of more than $7 million from the town’s CPF coffers to cover operating expenses in 2007. The money has been returned to the CPF account.

“We have to be afraid … because we have not seen the bottom of this problem,” Ms. Weir said.

Ms. Weir, who served on the Republican controlled board from 2000 to 2004, pointed to the large funding surplus the town had then and highlighted the flat tax rates and frugal spending habits she said that board had practiced. Like other speakers, she held up the Town Hall project as an example of wasteful spending by the current board.

Bill Wilkinson, the Republican Party nominee for supervisor in the 2007 race and again for the upcoming 2009 race, implored the Town Board to tailor its public meetings to fit the schedule of its residents better—namely, in the evenings, like Monday’s meeting.

In the meantime, however, he urged the crowd of agitated taxpayers to turn out for Town Board meetings whenever they can and needle the board on the details of its operations. Ask questions, he told the crowd—try to get them to explain themselves in ways the public can understand.

“If you don’t understand something, then you question it,” he said. “Why are we spending other people’s money differently than the way we would spend our own?”

In an interview on Tuesday, he applauded Monday’s meeting as a model for how the town should be interacting with its constituents. “Last night is an example of what open government should look and sound like,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, the town supervisor while Ms. Weir was on the board, also pilloried the board for the Town Hall project.

“Town Hall, it is an old town hall but we can live with it,” he said of the existing building, built in the 1960s, which the town has proposed replacing with five historic houses linked together by glass atriums. “The first thing the town should do is freeze it. Stop work on it.”

Mr. Schneiderman said the county, also facing large budget deficits, has cut $100 million out of its operating budget in recent weeks, something the town should take cues from. The supervisor’s proposed tax hike is too large, he said.

“A 20-percent increase, do you really understand what that is,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “That’s not going out to dinner. That’s no new computer for your kids.”

In his budget proposal, Supervisor McGintee noted that an 18-percent increase in town taxes would raise the tax bill of an average homeowner by about $250. On Monday night, town financial consultant Nicholas Lynn—himself the target of many jabs from critics—said that the proposed 18-percent increase will not be enough for the town to balance its 2009 budget and that the increase will likely have to be more than 20 percent.

“Taxes are not going to go up 20 percent,” Mr. Lynn said. “Taxes need to go up more than 20 percent. In a town like East Hampton, the way one gets elected is apparently either by not raising taxes or by promising things to people.”

Mr. Lynn’s reality check went over like a lead balloon in the already antagonized crowd.

“Eighteen or 20 percent feels like a huge hit to me,” Laura Smith said.

Mr. Schneiderman accused Mr. Lynn, whose $130 an hour salary was a frequent target of criticism, of supporting Supervisor McGintee’s laying of blame on his predecessor.

“Mr. Lynn is being paid $130 an hour to tell you it’s all my fault,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “When I was there our … credit rating jumped four times. That credit rating is gone, the McGintee administration has wiped that out. I don’t know that I would want to rely on the people who created this mess to fix the mess.”

Some speakers attacked the town for the spending cuts already proposed, particularly youth-oriented programs such as Project Most, an after-school help organization, and the popular YMCA ReCenter, which expects to see cuts in town aid meant to ensure kids can use the facility for free.

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East Hampton Town has a serious problem here and no one seems to be picking up the ball. It's been several months since this mess broke, and no one has seem to have mapped out a long term solution yet. I am tired of this , he did, she did crap. Come on people get off your butts and take this problem seriously. It this was a corporation, you would have been bankrupt long ago.
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on Oct 23, 08 6:58 PM