A task force charged with reviewing the Community Preservation Funds in each of the five East End towns, and determining what can be done to make them more effective and ensure that money is not being misallocated, has come up with a list of 17 suggestions to modify a program that has already helped preserve thousands of acres.
One of the suggestions discussed during the advisory panel’s last meeting—held Friday afternoon at Westhampton Beach Village Hall and attended by more than 60 people, including environmental leaders and local elected officials—recommends that each of the five towns adopt a rolling three-year management and stewardship program for their respective funds.
The initiative is intended to force leaders in each town to outline their fund’s objectives and priorities, ensuring that they stay a few years ahead of schedule in deciding how their money is spent, according to Kevin McDonald, the director of public lands for the Nature Conservancy and chairman of the task force.
Another one of the task force’s suggestions, and a topic of discussion during Friday’s meeting, was the idea of using the five CPFs as a single regional funding source when a property that is being acquired has regional benefit. That way municipalities that have large CPF revenues each year, including Southampton and East Hampton towns, would provide some financial assistance to towns with less revenue, such as Riverhead.
“We only discussed the possibility of giving the towns the ability to participate in a regional acquisition outside of their own town,” Mr. McDonald said. “This was only discussed, not resolved in the task force.”
Barbara Blass, a Riverhead Town Board member, supported the idea of a regional funding source and described her town’s situation as “dire and grave.” Riverhead’s CPF has generated a total of $30 million in revenue since 1999, while East Hampton’s program raised $30 million last year alone.
“The amount of funds generated on the North Fork is a lot less than on the South Fork,” said State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr, who attended the meeting. “About 80 percent of CPF money comes from the South Fork and the issue is that the North Fork needs funds from the South Fork.”
Money for each town’s CPF is raised through a 2 percent tax on the transfer of almost all real estate, which is paid by the buyer. The majority of funding is used for the acquisition of open space and preservation of farmland, though a percentage of revenues can also be used to manage those properties and help offset school property taxes in districts where large swaths of land have been taken off the tax rolls due to preservation.
Mr. Thiele noted that he and State Senator Ken LaValle—both of whom sponsored the original CPF legislation in Albany a decade ago—and North Fork State Assemblyman Marc Alessi would review the task force’s suggestions and worked them into a legislative proposal within 10 days. The suggestions for stewardship and management also will be circulated back to officials in the five East End towns so that the group can reach a consensus on policy issues.
Mr. Thiele said the legislative proposal would have to be introduced in Albany by the end of April and passed by the Senate and Assembly. If the proposal misses the deadline, Mr. Thiele said he would reintroduce it next year. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get the proposal done,” Mr. Thiele said. “But, more importantly, I want it to be right.”
Formed early last month at Mr. Thiele’s suggestion, the task force, comprised of about 20 local officials, business people and environmentalists, was charged with coming up with suggestions to “clarify issues” that have arisen regarding the allocation of CPF revenues, according to Mr. McDonald. “I think the group narrowed down the issues and that we got a consensus on most, but not all of them,” Mr. McDonald said.
One issue was East Hampton Town’s “borrowing” of CPF revenues to pay bills, as disclosed by Town Supervisor Bill McGintee—who walked out of the task force’s previous meeting, vowing that East Hampton would form its own committee to come up with CPF recommendations, saying he was insulted the panel wanted to severely limit the use of funds for historic preservation and stewardship.
At Friday’s meeting, Mr. McDonald stated that the task force had determined that the preservation and restoration of structures are approved under the CPF’s management and stewardship program, and that capital expenses to historic structures are also eligible under the law. However, the tapping of the CPF to finance day-to-day operating expenses for the stewardship of lands acquired through the program is not allowed—a point that has been disputed by Mr. McGintee.
But in its report, the task force does suggest that stewardship and management of protected properties, which covers historical preservation, must not exceed 3 percent of total CPF funding collected in one year. Currently, 10 percent of a town’s CPF can go to stewardship and management, which is part of the fund’s original 1998 legislation. Mr. Thiele said that he wants that part of the original legislation to be left untouched.
“This cap is to make sure the CPF does not become a buildings maintenance program,” Mr. McDonald said.
Mr. McGintee was at Friday’s meeting in Westhampton Beach and repeated his complaint, noting that he had objected to placing a lower limit on the amount of funding that can be used for property management and stewardship.
“I don’t agree with all of the recommendations made by the task force,” Mr. McGintee said later. “But after the discussions at the meeting, I think that Assemblymen Thiele and Senator LaValle agree with me on my ideas for the management and stewardship fund.”
Mr. Thiele said, in a separate interview, that he was not sure whether or not the capping of the management and stewardship program would make it into the legislative proposal. He emphasized that the East End towns should have some flexibility with their CPF money.
Mr. Thiele had previously said that using CPF money to plug holes in a town’s budget—as Mr. McGintee did in East Hampton—does not comply with the intent of the law. In late March, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota issued a subpoena seeking East Hampton’s CPF records dating back to 2003.
Mr. Thiele said that it’s most important that the money in the CPF goes to its intended purpose, which is to buy preserved land. “We do not want a town taking money out of the fund to subsidize the budget,” Mr. Thiele said.
In addition, the task force recommended that each East End town set up an advisory board that will help in the creation and implementation of a management and stewardship program.
Mr. Thiele said State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli had agreed to conduct an audit of all the towns’ CPFs beginning this spring. The audit should be finished in late summer.
Mr. McDonald said the task force didn’t talk about the payment in lieu of taxes program, a hot topic in Southampton Town as more school districts with land off the tax rolls are now eligible to receive CPF money to offset school property taxes. “We didn’t get too far into it because we were dealing with a bunch of other stuff,” he added.