The Democratic candidates for East Hampton Town Board seats — Zachary Cohen for supervisor and Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc for town board — announced this week that if elected they will reinstate the Highway Department’s fall leaf pickup.
The program was suspended in 2010 by the sitting Republican administration headed by Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who is running for re-election this year. It was done away with entirely in the 2011 budget.
The elimination of the program, the Democratic candidates said in a press release, “has harmed those who can least afford it.” Cutting the cost of having Highway Department trucks vacuum piles of leaves from the roadsides in late fall “does not help the taxpayer to save $14 in taxes if he or she must spend $100 paying a landscaper to perform the same service,” they said.
The town board’s suspension and then elimination of the program prompted a number of residents to plead for the service to be continued. Only a few applauded the idea.
Nevertheless, a board majority moved to cut the program, citing a need for cost-cutting in light of the town’s multimillion-dollar deficit.
In their release this week the Democrats questioned the financial reasoning behind the cut.
The Highway Department budget is separate from the town’s general fund, in which the deficits existed, and its money may not be used for other purposes. “Taxpayers were not honestly told that the Highway Department had large surpluses, and that any new Highway expenditures or savings would not affect the deficit,” the candidates said in their release.
At the time the leaf pickup program was suspended in 2010, they noted, its cost had been included in that year’s Highway Department budget, for which taxes had already been collected. The department ended last year with a $700,000 surplus, according to the Democrats. “At most $300,000 of this surplus came from not doing the leaf pickup, meaning that even if we had done the leaf pickup the Highway Department would have had a $400,000 surplus in 2010. Also, the Highway Department started the year with over $2.7 million of surplus saved from prior years. The Highway Department had enough money to pay for leaf pickup for the next 10 years.”
In 2013, the Democrats promised, leaf pickup will be returned to the budget as an annual item.
“In sum, leaf pickup in 2010 should not have been eliminated on financial grounds,” the Democrats stated.
To have done away with leaf pickup this year was “financial foolery” amounting to a “stealth tax,” they said, predicting that taxpayers will pay far more to landscapers to have dead leaves carted off than they save in taxes.
“Leaf pickup is an example of government providing a service less expensively and more efficiently than the private sector,” said the candidates. “The public is well served when government can efficiently provide a service that helps a high percentage of taxpayers. In this case, people of all income levels can benefit, as those in large houses would still save money if they used the townwide program.”
“We listen, and we believe that our taxpayers’ desires are important. If a large number of taxpayers want leaf pickup, if leaf pickup can benefit a diverse group of taxpayers in all hamlets, and if the townwide leaf pickup is significantly less expensive than any other option, then the taxpayer should receive what they want.”
The three Democrats criticized the town board’s response to residents who said they weren’t physically able to rake and bag all their leaves themselves. “Not many volunteers materialized,” they said, to participate in the board’s promised program of free help for needy homeowners. The candidates also said that telling residents to mulch their leaves and compost them on-site was unrealistic.
Mr. Cohen, Ms. Overby, and Mr. Van Scoyoc, promised that, if elected, they would develop and implement an efficient leaf removal program for next year, and pay for it using surplus Highway Department funds, provided they are not otherwise allocated in the 2012 budget soon to be prepared by the present board. In this year’s budget, a portion of the surplus was used for highway expenses. In 2013, the Democrats promised, leaf pickup will be returned to the budget as an annual item.
Since almost all collected leaves are turned into compost, the candidates said townwide leaf removal was the best environmental alternative, second only to having property owners compost leaves themselves. Finally, they said, leaf removal is better than having uncollected leaf piles, which can harbor rodents and ticks.