Southampton Trustees, Town Board Spar Over Budgeting

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With less than a month to go before the Southampton Town Board must adopt a 2015 operating budget, the Southampton Town Trustees this week gave the Town Board a $450,000 wish list of funding that they say should be added to maintain services.

From salaries for bay constables and office staff to dredging, shellfish restocking and legal fees, the Trustees say that the things the town has traditionally funded for the ancient, quasi-independent board were winnowed during financial struggles in the wake of the recession, but should now be restored as the town’s footing solidifies.

“I want to start bringing the Trustees’ budget back up to what it was the before the financial crisis,” Trustee Eric Shultz, the board’s president, told board members at a work session on Thursday, October 30. “The Trustees have contributed a lion’s share of their budget, and we feel we have helped the town weather the storm. There’s a lot of things that the Trustees used to be funded for that are not there anymore. We need to start coming out of the hole a bit.”

The Town Board and Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, at times exasperated and at times seeing the importance of funding needs, told the Trustees that, for one, such a wish list should have been brought forth months ago, when the budget was being crafted. Unlike all of the town’s other departments, Ms. Throne-Holst noted at a work session with four of the five Town Trustees last week, the Trustees never submitted a requested budget to the town, and in doing so now did not seem to be expecting their own substantial revenue stream to be fully accounted for in budgeting their operations.

“You had a window to submit a requested budget like everyone else, and you didn’t do it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “So now we have to set back the clock and pretend we’re in September before the budget came out and have these discussions. This budget is well into its crafting phase, and we’re looking at needing to stay within the tax cap … with a zero-percent tax increase.”

Comptroller Len Marchese pointed out that town funding of the Trustees has increased in the 2015 budget more than for other departments, more than the state-mandated 2-percent tax cap, and by more than $100,000 since the depths of the town financial struggles in 2010 and 2011.

“Basically, in this year’s budget, we tried to keep all the departments in the tax cap level,” Mr. Marchese said. “In the past few years, the Trustees have been exceeding the tax cap. This year, we’re raising you 3.5 percent, so we’ve exceeded it, to the detriment of other areas. We’ve cut other areas.”

In 2005 the Trustees’ funding from the town was $436,400. In 2008 it was $513,428 and in 2009 it was $739,513. In 2011, it dropped to $542,351, but this year it was back up to $655,319. In 2015, Ms. Throne-Holst’s proposed budget directs $678,137 to the Trustees.

In addition to the town funding, the Trustees bring in some $250,000 a year from revenues for permit fees and dock rentals. And in 2013 they also garnered a windfall of some $1.2 million through the sale of sand from the Mecox Bay cut—all revenue that Ms. Throne-Holst said must be taken into account when the town is budgeting for the needs of the Trustees.

“You have a revenue source that is approximately $250,000 per year, so you operate like an enterprise fund, like many of our other departments do, and we budget accordingly,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “We ask you to come in every year and have these discussions so the tentative budget reflects all that. The fact that you had a bumper crop year with sand dredging last year, and brought in more than $1 million, is part of how we’re all talking about it.”

Mr. Shultz pointed out the most glaring omission from recent town budgets: the lack of legal funding. With a docket of lawsuits both against them and brought by them, the Trustees’ expenses in legal fees stand at approximately $100,000 a year, something the town used to fund but hasn’t since a falling out over whether to settle a lawsuit against residents of West Hampton Dunes.

Ms. Throne-Holst bristled at the West Hampton Dunes case being highlighted, pointing out that the Trustees had actually agreed to a settlement and then backed out at the 11th hour.

Mr. Shultz said the Trustees had been forced into the settlement by a lack of funds to continue the legal fight and an insistence on settling by members of the Town Board. But when the Trustees suddenly found themselves the recipient of a $250,000 award from a separate lawsuit over gasoline contamination of groundwater in Hampton Bays and Flanders, they elected to use the money to continue fighting the other suit, which focuses on ownership of a swath of bayfront land both the Trustees and a group of West Hampton Dune property owners claim to own.

Mr. Shultz said that the case bore out the specter of the town controlling the Trustees’ legal funding, which the Trustees have instead supported with their own revenues since.

“We had to settle because we didn’t have the funds,” Mr. Shultz said. “The Trustees under the Dongan Patent have the right to prosecute cases. We can’t have the Town Board dictating which cases we can fight.”

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