Leaf Pickup Trashed, PR consultant hired amid town budget cuts

(04/01/2010) As the first quarter of the year drew to a close this week, the East Hampton Town Board took stock of the town’s fiscal state and outlined new budget-cutting efforts, including eliminating the Highway Department’s leaf pickup service and closing the town recycling and garbage disposal centers one day a week. A proposal to consolidate town departments and offer incentives for employees to step down before considering layoffs, also brought up at the board’s meeting on Saturday, is reported on separately.

The town board Republican majority had promised $10 million in budget cuts while running for election last year.

At the same meeting, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson announced the intent to hire a communications consultant to issue press releases and other announcements at a cost of up to $25,000 a year, creating a new position.

According to a resolution to be offered at a meeting tonight by Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, a company called Hamptons Journal will be hired, using part of a $35,253 budget line for a legislative secretary position that has been left vacant to cut costs.

On its Web site, Hamptons Journal, based in Wainscott, is described as a “full-color, glossy, seasonal magazine focusing on the people and events that make the Hamptons unique.” The editor and publisher of the free publication is Laura Weir, the daughter of Diana Weir, a former town councilwoman who has been an active Republican Party member.

“We thought we might be remiss in letting everyone know about significant issues for the town — grant applications, grant approvals, board positions, new policies, strategies, and practices. A communicator working with the entire board would assist us in ensuring that these types of announcements get made and get made in a timely fashion,” Mr. Wilkinson said in an e-mail on Tuesday. According to the resolution, Ms. Weir will assist with both internal and external communication.

“I think we were elected to cut this budget, and services are going to have to come along,” Mr. Wilkinson said on Saturday after announcing that “we are going to cut the leaf pickup.”

Although Councilwoman Theresa Quigley had suggested such a move at an earlier meeting, there had been no public board discussion or full board vote. “Times are tough and it’s time to stop looking to the government to do these things for you,” she said on Saturday.

Highway Superintendent Scott King, who has been advocating a change to a cheaper model of leaf pickup by requiring residents to place leaves in bags, was at the meeting and made it clear that he had no part in the decision. “I would hope, at the very least, that if you had a deer summit, that you have a leaf summit,” he told the board before leaving the room. Southampton Town held several meetings for residents this week about leaf pickup.

“I understand that people are upset, but people are more upset about the taxes. Come on, it’s time to get real about this,” Ms. Quigley said.

In a first-quarter report to the board on Saturday, Len Bernard, the town budget officer, said that eliminating the leaf pickup could save $540,000 this year. Going to a six-day week at the recycling centers, with nine-hour days, could save $360,000, he said.

Savings yielded by eliminating town jobs, deceasing salaries, cutting out $12,000 in spending on travel and advertising, and the failure of several town board members to take the town’s health insurance, as well as the settlement of a contract with town police at a pay increase rate lower than expected total $883,900, Mr. Bernard said.

New revenue totaling $120,500 is expected through an increase in fees for nonresident beach parking permits, town boat slip rental, and an auction of surplus vehicles and equipment.

The budget officer said that revenue from mortgage taxes — paid each time a property is bought or refinanced, and traditionally a key piece of the town’s annual budget income — appears to be on track for the $2.6 million anticipated in the 2010 budget. The annual amount may even exceed that, he said.

East Hampton’s overall budget deficit cannot be determined until forensic audits of the town’s capital projects and community preservation funds are complete, but Mr. Bernard said he believes it will be “real close” to the $30 million projected.

He noted the cost to the town of the audits themselves. The fee for the preservation fund audit is $125,000. A resolution will be offered tonight to approve payment of up to $200,000 for the capital projects fund audit. Interfund transfers from the preservation fund may result in almost $1 million in interest due to the fund, Mr. Bernard said.

“I can’t tell you how much time we spend on a daily basis trying to get finances straight in this town,” Supervisor Wilkinson said. “And it’s very, very painful.”

Last week Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Bernard, and the town’s outside auditors presented information to the county district attorney about transfers of money out of the preservation fund under the prior administration. Although temporary borrowing among town funds is allowed as long as all are made whole by the end of the year, a panel that reviewed the community preservation fund law determined transfers from that fund could not occur.

East Hampton’s former budget officer, Ted Hults, has been charged with making such a transfer, along with other violations of law related to his financial responsibilities, and former Supervisor Bill McGintee stepped down from his post last fall.

Mr. Wilkinson, on Saturday, defended the decision to go to the D.A., and said it was not political, as someone suggested to him last week. “We’re just trying to right the ship,” he said. The outside auditors, with a license on the line, insisted on reporting the information, Mr. Bernard said. He said that Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. had been consulted, and agreed. “It was the right thing to do; it was the only thing to do,” Mr. Bernard said.