Dismay and Anger Over Cuts to Services

Wilkinson, Quigley defend belt-tightening budget

(November 11, 2010) East Hampton Town’s 2011 budget is slated for a vote next Thursday, and after a majority of town board members agreed Tuesday to restore funding totaling $60,000 to four community service organizations, appears to have unanimous town board support.

The $63.9 million budget would reduce spending by $8 million from last year and result in a tax rate of $26.55 per $100 of assessed value for town residents, and $12.21 per $100 of assessed value for village residents.

Town Councilwoman Julia Prince and Councilman Dominick Stanzione worked together, Ms. Prince said at Tuesday’s meeting, on the proposal to increase the town grants to the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, the Family Service League, which offers counseling services, the Retreat, a shelter for abused women and children, and Phoenix House, which provides outpatient drug and alcohol addiction counseling.

Ms. Prince, along with Councilman Pete Hammerle, also suggested the board reconsider cutting the salary for a fisheries industry representative, but that money remains out of the budget.

All of the changes were opposed by Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley. Ms. Quigley said that, rather than choosing certain community groups to fund, the board should funnel fees that the town collects for mass-gathering permits to a fund from which the event sponsors may make donations to groups of their choosing, from a town-approved list.

At a budget hearing last Thursday, the board heard from a number of speakers who appealed for eliminated funding to be restored, particularly to avoid cuts in Human Services Department programs. Although a tax cut and fiscal belt-tightening is warranted, they suggested, the extent of cuts proposed in one year may be too severe.

Sue Avedon, a retired psychologist who volunteers her services to the Town Human Services Department, reviewed the potential effects of budget and personnel cuts in that department. She questioned whether the senior citizen nutrition and in-home services for 72 people could continue.

Eliminating funding for youth services, she said, will result not only in the end of the “homework club” after-school program, which has already been halted, but in an end to youth counselng and development programs and family and youth counseling.

“I’m here to express my dismay and anger at the costs that this will heap on those who can least bear it,” said Brad Loewen, a former town councilman.

“We need you,” he told Mr. Hammerle, his former colleague and fellow Democrat. “Just don’t vote no, fight,” he said to both Mr. Hammerle and Ms. Prince, the other half of the board’s Democratic minority.

He also appealed to Mr. Stanzione. “I really think that you have a spark of humanity,” he told him. The extent of cuts to the budget “is a choice,” Mr. Loewen told the board. “Don’t ruin this community.”

“Just because there is a financial responsibility to cut the budget . . . it doesn’t mean that there’s not a human responsibility that exists beyond that,” Zachary Cohen said.

“I’m here to speak on behalf of working families,” Stephen Grossman said. “Everybody in this town is taking a hit except the people that I’m looking at,” he said. The addition of $100,000, he suggested, would provide needed money to organizations such as the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, and would add about $4 extra to residents’ tax bills. “I think if you had a townwide referendum on whether we should take care of the children of working families, people would support it,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, which she chairs, Jeanne Frankl also addressed the “sweeping cuts” in the Human Services Department. “Inclusive human support systems maintain the decency and humanity of our community,” she said.

“I think as a community we can do that,” Debra Foster, another former councilwoman and a Democrat, said after Ms. Frankl’s comments.

She appealed to the board to consider an alternative budget that reduces the overall spending cut from $8 million to $6.2 million, and includes money for the Human Services programs and for the Highway Department to continue roadside leaf pickup, another service that has been suspended for this year and is proposed to be cut next year, too.

“Thank you for the tax cut, but I’m asking you to be compassionate about it,” Ms. Foster said. “I respect and support the cuts that you’ve made. You’ve done a good job. I’m asking for a little bit of heart. I think we can afford it.”

Ms. Foster said that a three-year financial plan submitted by the supervisor to the state comptroller called for 5-percent budget cuts for each of the next three years. “This is draconian,” she said.

A number of speakers at the budget hearing pressed the board to restore the salary of a fisheries representative, which has been cut from the budget, stressing the economic importance of the fishing industry to the town, including to all the categories of businesses that benefit from fishing tourism. That issue is reported on separately in today’s Star.

Although Supervisor Wilkinson stressed the efforts he has made on behalf of the fishing industry, Bonnie Brady, the executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, questioned him. “Since you’ve been our ‘friend,’ you’ve tried to sell the dock out from under us,” she said, referring to the inclusion of the town’s Montauk commercial dock on a list of properties that the board was to consider for sale, earlier this year. “You’re shanking us at noon in the parking lot while telling us you’re our friend.”

“Don’t take it personally,” she told the new board majority of their electoral win last fall, “but it wasn’t so much a mandate. Mickey Mouse could have been elected,” she said, in a reference to Mr. Wilkinson’s former job at Disney. “Because it wasn’t so much a mandate for pro-Republican as it was a mandate against the previous administration,” Ms. Brady said.

Paul Fiondella, on behalf of the town’s senior citizens advisory committee, raised questions about town services used by schoolchildren and districts, and said that the school districts rather than the town should provide those services. The money saved could be used by the town for tax relief and services for senior citizens, the committee suggested.

Two other speakers, Elaine Jones and Patrick Schutte, expressed support for the board’s efforts and budget cuts.

“I promised to cut the budget by $8 or $10 million,” Mr. Wilkinson said at the close of the hearing. “This town is grossly overspending,” he said. “We are living at a level that we shouldn’t be living at.”

“The Town of East Hampton ranks number five in the State of New York on total expenditures per capita.”

“I’d like to point out that we’ve been told that we’re lacking compassion, that we’re punitive, that we’re lacking in humanity, that we’re lacking heart,” Ms. Quigley said in her closing remarks. “To use them in this process is tantamount to an ad hominem attack,” said Ms. Quigley, who is a lawyer.

She and Mr. Wilkinson both pointed out that the board is grappling with the fallout from prior financial mismanagement, which resulted in a deficit of approximately $30 million. “There are people who are hurting, hurting, hurting,” she said. “All these, $25,000 here, $30,000 there — all of them add up to a lot of hurt for a lot of people,” she said. “Those of you who get up and call us lacking in compassion because your specific interest is being impacted, I think are lacking in compassion for the whole.”

“We’ve started on the road to change, and it’s difficult,” Councilman Stan­zione said Thursday night. “We need to establish a new way of business, and to provide professional management to an organization that, quite frankly, has not had it.”

Mr. Hammerle said of the previous administration, “I recognize that over the years the board had been operating under false assumptions given them by a budget officer and the supervisor. Those of us on the board who have experienced this have been pretty miserable for the past few years.”

He acknowledged that the Republican sweep of last year’s election was a vote against the previous administration. “They have a board majority now. They’re proposing these tax cuts. I’m inclined to support most of them.”

“I understand that people in this town need tax relief,” he said. Nonetheless, Mr. Hammerle said he supported restoring the fisheries consultant salary as “money well spent,” along with some other sums, such as those suggested Tuesday by Ms. Prince and Mr. Stanzione.