Rules Required

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It was a historic moment in 1998 when residents of the East End voted to create a Community Preservation Fund in each town, supported by a 2-percent tax paid by the buyers on most real estate transfers.

A decade later, another historic moment is at hand. Representatives of those towns, convened in a task force that held five long meetings this winter—more or less; East Hampton Town’s supervisor walked out during the fourth—have offered 17 suggestions for clarifying the state legislation that allowed for the creation of each CPF in the first place.

They have been sent to Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Ken LaValle, who both backed the CPF bill a decade ago. It will be up to them to fine-tune the task force’s ideas and present them to the legislature as amendments to the CPF law.

Aimed at protecting the integrity of each town’s CPF by avoiding any confusion about what the money can be used for, they must be implemented.

At a time when municipal revenues are falling and belts have to be tightened, the state has to make sure there is no confusion in any town hall about what CPF revenues are for: the purchase of land and structures for open space and historic preservation, with a very limited amount available for the incidental costs of each purchase and the initial stewardship and maintenance of each property.

It took time and changing circumstances for all to see that there were too many questions left hanging in the original CPF legislation. They leave the door open for town officials, facing difficult decisions, to see CPF funds as a resource for solving problems that have little to do with open space and historic preservation.

East Hampton Supervisor Bill McGintee and an East Hampton Town planning official walked out of the task force’s fourth meeting when the group decided to recommend that only 3 percent of a town’s average CPF balance—millions of dollars, even in small towns—can be used to pay for the stewardship and maintenance of historic places and properties acquired under the program. Mr. McGintee took the proposal as an insult. He said his town needed far more than that to cover the cost of handling CPF properties.

Mr. McGintee has been feeling the heat after news broke this winter that his budget officer borrowed CPF funds in 2007, since repaid, to help cover bills unrelated to preservation programs.

The CPF law is clear: “In no event shall monies deposited in the fund be transferred to any other account.” The district attorney’s office is looking into the matter.

Mr. McGintee sincerely believes that the CPF law’s language does not cover what he calls “borrowing.” That’s one reason why the task force’s efforts to clarify the law are so important. Without resolving these and other issues, it’s only a matter of time before officials in other towns begin to talk themselves into similar rationalizations.

The task force proposes that “a town may not use fund monies to pay all or part of the salary or fringe benefits of a town employee” without a very strict accounting of his or her hours. This was another consideration that East Hampton Town, facing budget deficits and struggling to cover its financial bases, made into a pressing issue by paying a town planning official with CPF money.

But for all the fine points the task force covers, it does not address Mr. McGintee’s argument that there is a difference between “borrowing” and “transferring.” As tortuous as his rationale may seem, it should be addressed, too, as long as the time has come to eliminate any areas of doubt.

The most important proposal from the task force would require that each town have a Town Board-approved, three-year budget for all incidental CPF expenses.

How obvious the need for that requirement seems now.

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