Editorial for EHP


A big question comes to mind after reading the 2009 draft management and stewardship plan released last week for the town’s Community Preservation Fund.

If it’s okay to use CPF money to convert an old house on the corner of Main and Cedar streets to serve as a town office, why hasn’t the town gone ahead and used CPF money to finish the Town Hall project, which incorporates five old buildings donated to the town by Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter?

Perhaps the answer is that an attempt to use CPF money to install heating, air conditioning, plumbing, electricity and all the necessities for those working in a new central town hall complex would be just too much of a stretch, even in this town, where stretches have been common for a while when it comes to budgeting. East Hampton doesn’t need another hue and cry over how it has misused CPF money.

CPF rules allow 10 percent of expected revenues to be used for “stewardship and management.” The town has proposed a plan that calls for spending about $846,000 out of the $10 million it expects to take in next year through the CPF tax, a 2-percent levy on real estate transactions paid by the buyer. The revenue generated is supposed to be used for preserving land and historic buildings.

The draft plan does keep management and stewardship spending within the 10-percent limit; and it does include proposals that seem reasonable, such as completing the renovation of the Amagansett Life Saving Station, which the town plans to operate as a museum.

The town hall project—for all its problems, fiscal and managerial—is a good investment in the future. When all the dust settles, it will be wonderful for East Hampton to have a beautiful, distinctive Town Hall made up of old East Hampton buildings. But true historic preservation is not what that project is all about—not when it comes to the interiors, anyway. They will be modern municipal facilities and no one believes it’s right to spend CPF money to create them.

As for the Jonathan Barnes-Silah Lester house at the corner of Cedar and Main, the town bought it with CPF funds in 2005 and planned from the start to use CPF money to restore it—not for historic preservation but for municipal use as office space for the town’s Land Acquisition Department.

How is that any different from the town hall project? The answer is it’s not. Perhaps the CPF should pay the salary of the manager of land acquisitions, as proposed in the plan. But it should not be paying for the bricks and mortar in which to house him.

The release last week of the town’s draft plan is raising some eyebrows because, except for a lot of boilerplate language taken from the CPF rules, it contains little documentation. The plan is now required by state law as a result of the brouhaha caused by East Hampton Town after it used CPF money for a councilman’s entire salary, for one thing, and borrowed millions to cover general fund expenses.

Now, before any money is spent on “stewardship and management,” it must first be listed, explained and documented in an annual plan approved by the Town Board after a public hearing. That hearing is set for this Friday, December 19, at 10:30 a.m. in Town Hall.

One of the troubling things about the Lester house and Town Hall projects is that town offices, even after millions are spent, still will be spread all over the place. That’s inefficient, the result of shoot-from-the-hip decisions, and it’s likely to add to the cost of government for years to come.

The question at hand, though, is whether or not it’s right to spend precious CPF money, the only local and reliable blood supply for preservation, on the conversion of old interiors into modern offices. There are very specific standards for historic preservation that must be met before a property owner can claim any tax breaks for it; likewise, no town is supposed to use CPF money for stewardship and management without careful documentation to show it is following the rules.

The town makes no effort to show why it’s okay to spend money on the Lester house interior. Maybe that’s because, if it tried, it wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Something didn’t add up in all the strident, hardball posturing that the Springs School District was doing in its tuition battle with East Hampton.

East Hampton had promised to consider giving Springs representation on its School Board, Springs board president Christopher Kelley insisted; it also had promised to consider district consolidation, he said. Until it came through on those promises, Springs wouldn’t pay what it owed East Hampton for sending its students to high school there.

But Springs and East Hampton never agreed on a contract. Would any school district, with millions of dollars at stake, rely on informal discussions as the basis for a complex and costly relationship? Mr. Kelley is a lawyer who knows what he’s doing. It’s hard to believe he would allow it.

Each side orchestrated and managed its own version of the public debate on this issue, so the facts are fuzzy. One thing is clear, and it speaks volumes: Mr. Kelley paid the bill pronto once the commissioner of education got involved.

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