Far away, with mouth agape

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When you go on vacation in this business, you run the risk of missing a hot story.

I promised myself that I would not look on line at the two papers that would be produced without me (last week’s and the one before that) until I returned from my annual trip with my wife to Key West. Even so, I am addicted to my computer, as much as I detest the useless busywork it sucks me into, and I took it along, planning to finally write up a profile of Kristi Hood I’ve been unable to get to.

When Mike Wright e-mailed me out of the blue, saying the DA had subpoenaed town financial records, I thought he was kidding.

It turns out, as everyone now knows, he was not. Sitting under the palms, I broke down and went online to read that week’s edition, the March 19 paper, with the lead story about Supervisor Bill McGintee’s disclosure that the town had been using Community Preservation Funds for years to pay bills.

That story was amazing to me, but only set me up for the even more amazing lead on March 26 about the DA’s subpoena.

Back in 1998, East Enders were lobbying a resistant State Legislature to enact enabling legislation that would let each of the five East End towns hold referenda to create their own individual Community Development Funds (CPF). The legislation also would allow the towns to levy a two-percent tax on the buyers of real estate to support each CPF.

I was editor of The Southampton Press at the time. I thought the issue, and the stories it generated for us, were immensely important. I rarely had time to report stories myself but, with Joe Shaw on staff and preparing to replace me at the end of the year, I was able to take the time to travel to Martha’s Vineyard, where a two-percent tax to fund land preservation had been in effect for more than a decade. I researched the Vineyard Gazette’s files, tracked down former critics and skeptics to interview, and found that every one of them had decided the program was a great success and had done nothing to harm the local real estate market.

Here on the East End, there was an enlightened acceptance among most local real estate people. But upstate real estate interests found the idea of individual towns winning the power to tax property purchases totally dreadful.

It took a lot of lobbying by East Enders to convince legislators in Albany they were not opening a Pandora’s box. If the East End towns were allowed to levy a real estate transfer tax to support preservation, they wondered, how could they say no to letting other towns and cities create taxes for their own pet projects?

A crucial element of the lobbying campaign—led by Kevin McDonald, then of the Group for the South Fork and now the Nature Conservancy, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Ken LaValle—was the assurance that East End towns would not dip into their CPF cookie jars for anything but land preservation.

The rapid development of the East End was a very present danger here, unmatched in magnitude anywhere else in the state, and it had a solution that was also unique to the region: let the wealthy outsiders, who were buying up all the property, pay a little surcharge and be the ones to fund saving the land that was left.

The area’s lobbyists managed to convince legislators that the problem, and the solution, were special to the East End, and—as long as East End towns did not start dipping into their preservation funds to balance their operating budgets—the program had no application anywhere else.

East Hampton Town, it now turns out, has been raiding the cooking jar. To me, it’s incredible, and I can imagine the reaction in Albany: utter horror and outrage.

If there’s even a hint that any other town has been treating its CPF as a cash cow, watch for an ugly move—maybe just for show, in some kind of upstate vs. downstate political game, but maybe for real—to repeal the legislation that allows for the program.? ***

After Deb Foster finished up her long career as a public servant on the Planning Board and finally the Town Board at the end of 2007, it struck me: wouldn’t she make a great columnist for us?

There was the potential problem of too much leftward leaning in our columns, or at least the perception of it (Democratic committee workhorse Bob Schaeffer writes an apolitical column about Wainscott for us) but an even bigger problem was my suspicion that Deb wouldn’t want a deadline. I’m glad she surprised me. Her first two columns ran while I was on vacation. She promises not to grind any party axes. Anyway, issues are issues; her knowledge of them, and personal opinions about them, will make good reading for anyone with an interest in the town.

The plan is that Deb will alternate with me in this space.

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