Southampton Town Trustees Set Their Sights On A Separate Tax Line

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Throughout the recent campaign for Southampton Town offices, there was one position that united all of the candidates not just for Town Trustee but also for Town Board: that the Trustees deserved their own line on property tax bills, and separate financial accounts to manage.

After years of fighting for a sustainable source of funding, it appears within reach for the Town Trustees—and it will become a priority in 2018.

“The tax line is the most important thing the Trustees need,” Town Trustee Scott Horowitz said on Tuesday. “Now that the election’s over, I’m going to be full throttle to make my points to the state legislators on why it’s important for the Trustees to have their own tax line.”

For the past 331 years, the Trustees have acted as stewards of more than 25,000 acres of bay bottoms and shorelines for the “freeholders and commonality” of the Town of Southampton. Along with that role comes expenses. Dredging inlets, opening the Sagaponack and Mecox cuts, providing pump-out boats, and providing protection for endangered piping plovers are just some of the projects the Trustees are responsible for.

Along with those projects, the Trustees have been involved in numerous legal battles in an effort to protect and preserve the bay bottoms and beach access. Recently, they appeared ready to take on a new legal battle, with Southampton Village, to retain the lettered roads along Meadow Lane in Southampton Village that were deeded to the village in 1956 for a mere $10.

Over the years, though an entity separate from and equal to the Southampton Town Board, the Trustees have relied on the Town Board for its funding. That’s because the Trustees do not have a mechanism providing a steady income of tax revenue to fund their activities. The Town Board does, and allocates funding to the Trustees every year. The Trustees have long talked about the desire to have a separate tax line, but the plea has never gained traction in Town Hall until this year.

The tug-of-war involving the purse strings has been a source of friction that eventually went to court. In October 2015, the Trustees won a ruling confirming that they were a separate government entity from the Southampton Town Board, which allowed the Trustees to maintain control over their own finances.

Since then, the Trustees have controlled their own income, which primarily derives from permits and dock fees and, at one time, from selling dredged sand.

But with mounting legal fees, not to mention dock repairs, like those that need to be done at the Baycrest dock facility in Westhampton, and opening Mecox cut several times a year, the money they bring in from dock fees is not enough to cover expenses.

The answer, they say, is to break the ties with the Town Board altogether, and allow the Town Trustees a line on the annual property tax bill, with the revenue going directly to the Board of Trustees and its coffers.

During his campaign, Trustee Bruce Stafford said the tax line would be important for the Trustees, because it would allow them to be able to do more projects. Trustee President Ed Warner echoed Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Stafford.

On Wednesday, Trustee Bill Pell said he would stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Trustees to fight for a tax line. The one stipulation Mr. Pell has is that it should not raise taxes for those who live in Southampton.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who endorsed the idea during his successful reelection campaign, had said then that the move would not raise the overall tax bill, because the total tax collected by the Town Board would be reduced at an amount equal to what would then be collected separately by the Trustees.

The idea is when the town collects property taxes, a portion would go directly to the Town Trustees via a fiduciary account in a town-designated official depository. From there, the Trustees would have full control over the fund, and be able to designate money to various projects.

Mr. Horowitz said the Trustees are united in the battle, but they also need support from the supervisor and Town Board—and also in Albany, because state legislation is required to create a new taxing authority. That could be a tricky proposal, considering the fact that Governor Andrew Cuomo has been battling to reduce the number of taxing authorities in the state.

But Mr. Horowitz said the time has come to take up the cause: “I think we’ve come a long way with accountability and transparency, and I think we’ve laid the foundation to be able to deal with that tax line.”

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