He had not cleared the shelves of the mementos and books in his office at East Hampton Town Hall last week, but Bill Wilkinson was ready to move on. As he looked back at his four frequently contentious years as town supervisor, it was with a mixture of satisfaction for what had been accomplished, sharp words for some of those who criticized him, and concern for the town’s future.
“It was a total disaster,” he said about the crisis he and his fellow Republican town board members inherited when they took office in 2010. Bill McGintee, the previous town supervisor, left a financial mess when he resigned in 2009.
Focusing on how to trim the town’s expenses, Mr. Wilkinson said that, at the beginning of his time in office, he realized that the budget of the Town of East Hampton was roughly equivalent to the budget of the Town of Southampton. “Yet Southampton had three times the population and twice the land. That didn’t make any sense.”
“There were a lot of people that were just going through the motions, who didn’t understand what the appropriate priorities should be, and had no clue on how to fix it,” he said. “We knew what to do, how to do it, and we knew we had limited time to get it done. The pace of play had to change dramatically. With that, some people got offended.”
For the past four years, Mr. Wilkinson routinely clashed over matters big and small with the Democrats on the board, Pete Hammerle and Julia Prince in his first two years and Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc in the last two. For Mr. Wilkinson it was a matter of philosophy.
“There is the philosophical challenge of smaller government versus bigger government. I chose a smaller operation. Some people think government is in the business of employment. I have a problem with that. Fiscal responsibility is based on your value system. That’s the way I was educated.”
A graduate of the University of Scranton who attended the Harvard Business School’s executive education program, Mr. Wilkinson had been in the Reserve Officers Training Corps and served as a first lieutenant in the Army from 1971 until 1973, stationed in Europe. After the service, he became an executive and consultant to major corporations in the human resources field. Mr. Wilkinson believes it was his private-sector background, along with those of his fellow Republicans on the board, Dominick Stanzione and Theresa Quigley, that was key to the town’s financial turnaround.
“When I took over, we didn’t know which fund was paying for which activity. That is straightened out. The C.P.F. [community preservation fund], which was raided to the tune of $16 to $18 million, has been paid back and is sacred again. We are in surplus in all accounts except for one. The total debt of the town has been reduced from $150 million to slightly under $100 million by 2015. Twenty-six departments were shrunk to 13, and I have 13 managers that are doing things that they hadn’t done in the past. You have to prioritize.”
Now that the town is on firmer financial footing, affordable housing is an issue he believes the next town board will have to address, but in a way that doesn’t increase overall debt.
“Probably 70 percent of the trades that come into this town are from outside the town. Seventy percent of the businesses can’t afford to live here,” he said. The solution in the future, he believes, must be shared responsibility. It should not be just Montauk and Springs that shoulder the load of new affordable housing. It should be spread equally through the hamlets, he said.
Mr. Wilkinson expressed frustration that East Hampton does not benefit from sales tax or hotel tax revenues, despite the fact that it is a tourist destination three months a year and revenues from tourism have increased. The money, under state law, goes to the county. He said that he has, for the past two years, tried to get an accounting of how much Suffolk County collects in East Hampton versus how much is returned to the town in goods and services. Although the figures were hard to obtain, he believes that East Hampton may be getting as little return as 30 cents on the dollar.
Mr. Wilkinson is also unhappy that this tax revenue is controlled by county politicians. He commented that they were “from west of the Shinnecock. And they don’t give a damn about what happens out here.”
Mr. Wilkinson was effusive, however, in his praise for Democratic Representative Tim Bishop, and the money Washington has earmarked for a beach restoration project on Montauk’s downtown ocean beaches.
“Tim Bishop didn’t have to get Montauk this money. When you think about it, he could have gotten a lot more smiles from Brookhaven by giving them $50 million, as opposed to Montauk and its 4,000 lives.”
Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Wilkinson unleashed his opinions about some of his critics. He said the Concerned Citizens of Montauk “would just let Montauk fall into the ocean.” He called the editorials in The East Hampton Star “ill-founded” and “un-analytical.” He said that opponents of the 555 proposal for market-rate senior citizen housing in Amagansett used “a campaign of hysteria.” He called their tactics “the scariest thing this town has seen.”
Mr. Wilkinson said he had seen a series of outrageous text messages that seemed related to that controversy. He declined to say to whom the texts had been sent. One read: “Those three are bastards. We’ve got to get the dirt on Stanzione out.” He also reported that Councilwoman Quigley and her family had been threatened. Indeed, he said the whole 555 controversy stemmed from a misunderstanding of his administration’s intent. It did not plan to vote for 555 the same day as the hearing on its proposed new senior citizen zoning district, but wanted simply to involve the public in the discussion.
“Why should this gang of eight people in Amagansett determine what happens?” he asked, referring to the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee. “We want to hear from the public. Since when has this town been so intimidated by a public hearing?”
Looking ahead, he expressed concern about the potential for the town to return to poor fiscal planning, even though Supervisor-elect Larry Cantwell has asked Len Bernard, Mr. Wilkinson’s budget officer, to stay on. He feared, he said, that the new Democratic administration would be under political pressure to undo many of the reforms his administration had put in place. He also warned that Mr. Cantwell was going to find that running the town, with its 72 square miles and $70 million budget, is quite different than running East Hampton Village.
Mr. Wilkinson has no plan to retire. “My wife would throw me out of the house,” he said with a laugh. He is going to get back into business, almost certainly locally, he said, but is going to wait to see what the New Year brings.
During his term in office, Mr. Wilkinson said he had never met once with the Republican leadership. “I came in with no political background at all, no appreciation for the nuances of politics, and I can confirm that I leave with no appreciation for the nuances of politics. If it were to run a business, I think our administration would have gotten an A."