Election 2013: Looming Budget Gaps

The day of reckoning about the town’s forced poverty is coming soon

   An article in these pages this week about local enforcement of regulations governing access to businesses and public accommodations for people with disabilities points to a looming problem: East Hampton Town departments have been left unable to provide needed services as a result of three years of budget-cutting. Seeking compliance with disabilities laws, both local and federal, would take a considerable investment of time and staff, something the departments involved lack. For candidates hoping to run for town supervisor and town board, leveling with the voters about the long-term need for tax increases will be essential.
    In a number of editions this year, we have been writing about some of the key issues that the political parties and voters should grapple with as they make their choices. Among these have been returning civility and respect to town meetings, restoring the rule of law, and coping with climate change and sea-level rise in an informed manner. Dollars and cents issues are next on the list, and there is significant reason for concern that the Wilkinson years have so gutted both infrastructure and employee numbers that meeting needs in the years ahead will be expensive.
    Whether because of politics or ideology, the day of reckoning about the town’s forced poverty is coming soon. This could well be one reason why there has been no one of note stepping forward to run for town supervisor on the Republican line. Perhaps they are in on the little secret that the next person in the office will necessarily be responsible for tax increases. This would not be the first time in relatively recent memory that the town’s budget-writers left a financial time bomb waiting for an incoming administration. The McGintee administration did it by inappropriate juggling of town accounts; the Wilkinson team has done it by decimating town departments.
     The difficulties are not limited to disability laws or overworked ordinance enforcers. The Building Department reports having a hard time keeping up with routine paperwork, for example. Nor do departmental problems take into consideration some big-ticket items, such as necessary roadwork, that would in most cases have to be paid for by the town’s issuing bonds, whose cost would show up in tax bills for years to come.
    This is also why you may not see a resolution to East Hampton Town’s contract negotiations with its police union until after the budget is due in November. That way, any likely increases will not be included in the annual police appropriation, forcing the next town administration, probably a Democratic one, to scramble to come up with the money. By one calculus, resulting taxpayer anger could vault the Republicans back into power in the following election.
    Writing the town’s 2014 budget is a responsibility that falls to Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, whose sniffy distaste for funding much of anything without tapping surpluses or selling assets has been made clear. The budget itself is not made final until after the November election, but it should loom large as the parties narrow down their choices, the campaigns unfold, and the candidates talk to voters about the tough choices ahead.