Last Friday was Deb Foster’s birthday, and the former East Hampton Town Board member-turned-rabble-rouser decided to throw a public party by inviting 17 business and finance-savvy residents to share their ideas about how to put the town’s derailed finances back on the tracks, even though the town supervisor doesn’t seem interested in her efforts.
Suggestions were plentiful during the two-hour session, held in the meeting room of the East Hampton Village Emergency Services building on Cedar Street before a crowd of two dozen residents. The former Springs teacher and town planner made sure that all of her panelists were assigned enough homework to keep the group working on fiscal solutions for months to come.
Ms. Foster said that she hopes the new group will work with the Town Board’s newly formed budget advisory committee in order to create suggestions for the Town Board that are comprehensive and not redundant.
Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, who did not attend the forum, said this week that he is not interested in hearing Ms. Foster’s suggestions.
“It is of little to no concern for me. Deb Foster is just political posturing,” he said, adding that he believed Ms. Foster had done nothing to help the town’s fiscal health during her tenure on the board from 2004 to 2007.
“It’s hypocritical for her to take advantage of this crisis. We’ve hired someone who I believe is one of the finest financial managers on the East End of Long Island,” he said, referring to the hiring of comptroller Janet Verneuille last week. “I welcome input from the public but I’m not giving credence to Deb Foster’s political ambitions.”
Though Ms. Foster has said that she is not planning to run again for public office, Mr. McGintee said he was unsure if that was the case.
“She can do whatever she wants to do, but it would be preferable if she would stop interfering with the progress we’re making,” he said.
Town Board member Brad Loewen, the only board member who attended the meeting, saw positive things in the forum.
“Overall, I’m very happy. I’m delighted that people want to involve themselves with the community’s problems,” he said, after commenting, “I was a little disappointed that there was no dialogue going on. They were self-centered on what they wanted to air.”
“But unless there’s give and take between those people and the Town Board,” he added, “this is going nowhere. I was the only Town Board member there. Nobody bothered to ask me a question. I might be able to give them some kind of explanation. I don’t want this to degenerate into ‘beat up the Town Board.’”
Several lawmakers and financial consultants for other East End towns spoke at the forum, including State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who recounted the financial crisis he inherited when he became supervisor of Southampton Town in 1991.
“There were some common elements” with East Hampton’s situation, he said. “Town government had been a mom and pop operation and we were suddenly dealing with tens of millions of dollars.”
He said that, once he was in office, he imposed a spending cap and laid off a number of town workers. He also switched the town over to a self-insurance plan, which he said turned out to be “an unmitigated disaster.” East Hampton Town has just done the exact opposite, switching from a self-insurance plan that has cost it far more than it expected to Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield. He said that he also went through the town’s contract and equipment lines, “where all the fat is,” looking to cut costs. He also hired a town manager.
Deputy County Executive Bob Zwirn and Charlene Kagel, who is currently serving as Brookhaven Town’s commissioner of finance, shared similar harrowing stories about having to severely pare down municipal budgets.
Ms. Foster invited representatives from Munistat Services, a bond counsel firm that provides services to most of the towns and school districts on the East End, but not to East Hampton.
Mr. Loewen said that he believes the town’s current bond counsel, Randy Mayer of the Great Neck firm Fulbright & Jaworski, is doing a good job.
He said that he thought Ms. Foster may be touting Munistat after a controversy that led to the resignation of former Town Attorney Laura Molinari last year, after a facsimile of Ms. Molinari’s signature was submitted on inaccurate bond reports.
“Deb was concerned it might have been fraudulent. I viewed it as certainly an error, something that shouldn’t have been done and won’t happen again,” said Mr. Loewen. “This is a firm we’ve been doing business with for a very long time. We’ve been able to sell our bonds at very good interest rates, even in these times.”
Ms. Foster, however, said that Munistat’s good reputation and the company’s work providing multi-year financial plans and its experience with bonding for the Community Preservation Fund should make it a candidate to be the town’s bond counsel.
“I met with them three times. They proved to be competent and you can trust them,” she said. “All the other towns on the East End can’t be wrong. They know this area, which is unique.”
Ms. Foster also made several other suggestions, including making the town’s YMCA more self-sustaining; examining bills from four engineering consultants who she said had “earned millions of dollars” from the town; and generating more revenue from the town’s indoor hockey rink on Abrahams Path.
She also suggested the town look into the possibility of selling its waste transfer station, which she said runs $3 to $5 million in the red each year.
“I talked to an outfit that would buy the transfer station, but there shouldn’t be a headline saying ‘Group Recommends We Sell the Dump,’” said Ms. Foster, who added that she was just brainstorming.
Mr. Loewen said that he could see the town selling its cesspool plant, otherwise known as a scavenger waste facility, which is on Springs-Fireplace Road next to the dump. The town is currently considering raising fees at the facility.
“We’re not in the scavenger waste business. It’s a very complicated, rather expensive operation that takes quite a bit of maintenance and interaction with the DEC and the EPA,” he said. “It’s just a constant drain on our efforts.”
Ms. Foster said that she hopes by April to present all candidates running for town office with a white paper on how the town should best bring its finances into the 21st century and a taxpayer’s bill of rights outlining residents’ rights to transparency in the town’s financing.
“When I ran in 2003, I wish I’d had it,” she said. “I feel partly responsible I didn’t take the time to listen in to this. When I ran, it was all about open space and affordable housing.”