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Oct 28, 2008 2:56 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East Hampton Town Board gets an earful on budget cuts and tax hikes

Oct 28, 2008 2:56 PM

Worried residents and distressed program directors begged the East Hampton Town Board to cut spending and restore government funding during a nearly three-hour hearing Tuesday morning on the town’s proposed $67-million budget and the 22-percent tax increase it carries with it.

The tax increase and proposals for more fees for town residents—including the first-ever annual fee for residents to park at town beaches—drew criticism from many speakers. So did cuts in town grants to social, educational and cultural programs.

“I am against the size of this tax increase,” said resident Michael Forst. “I am against cutting any child-related services. As a community, we are just starting to feel the impact of this financial crisis. This budget needs to be looked at extremely critically and cut wherever possible to limit the size of the tax increase.”

Mr. Forst went so far as to give layoffs in town government a nod of approval but no one else did. Some proposed paring down the work force through attrition, freezing all raises for non-union workers and taking a hard line on upcoming contract negotiations.

Margaret Turner, president of the East Hampton Business Alliance, called for the board to freeze hiring, eliminate expensive overtime work by town employees and start reducing staffing through attrition. She said the town should, however, hire a “bona fide, qualified” business manager, similar to those East Hampton Village and Southampton Town employ—a suggestion echoed by other speakers as well.

“We believe,” Ms. Turner said, speaking for the members of the Business Alliance and drawing a loud applause, “that your commitment to these basic principals will set the town back on the path to fiscal health.”

Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on the loss of the grants, especially for youth-oriented programs. The proposed budget eliminates some $125,000 in government grants to Project Most, East Hampton Day Care Center, the PTA organizations of several school districts, hamlet chambers of commerce, the Retreat and Guild Hall. Most are also funded by grants county and state governments as well as fees and fund-raising.

The heads of some of the two dozen programs that would lose some or all of their town money in the latest budget proposal—released by the Town Board last Friday—asked for their funds to be restored. They noted that the amounts they were asking to have put back in the budget were “a drop in the bucket” compared to overall town spending, yet critical to programs operated on a shoestring.

“I’m here today to cry for help,” said Jennifer Wilson, speaking on behalf of the East Hampton Day Care Center, which had its annual town grant cut from $100,000 to $75,000 in the proposed budget. “We cannot lose the additional money we get from the town. The children of the day care center cannot withstand that budget cut.”

The importance of preserving youth-oriented programs was a common theme. “There is no one more important than the kids of our community,” said Ruth Appelhof, director of Guild Hall, which runs a variety of arts-based educational programs in conjunction with local school districts. It saw its entire $15,000 town grant eliminated from the 2009 budget proposal.

“I respectfully ask that our youth are not left to suffer because of the financial strife that has beset the town,” added Valerie Meinken, president of the Springs School PTA.

“Don’t punish our children for what this board did,” Elaine Jones said. “Do not cut Project Most. Do not cut the PTAs. Do not cut Guild Hall [or] anything for the children of this town.”

Supervisor Bill McGintee acknowledged the pleas of the speakers but said that the Town Board is extremely limited in the sort of cuts it can make from the budget.

Contractual obligations tie the hands of board members on the vast majority of the budget’s spending allocations, he said. He noted that the board put $600,000 of a $710,000 grant to the YMCA RECenter back in the budget because a contract with the RECenter had not expired, as originally thought. He said the town would be looking to reconsider the big grant to the center after the contract expires.

Some speakers suggested that the YMCA should not be receiving so much public money, now that it has evolved into a thriving operation. The money, even a small portion of it, would allow all of the grants to smaller organizations to be restored.

“They’ve raised a grand total of $17,000 this past year, and we’re giving them $710,000,” said former town councilwoman Debra Foster. “Perhaps they can stand on their own and raise some more money.”

Some residents offered suggestions for how the town could ease the tax burden and cut spending, yet still allow for the restoration of the community grants. Their suggestions ranged from the sale of land—including East Hampton Airport—to the elimination of leaf pickups, reducing the size of the town’s workforce and freezing salaries. Stopping land preservation purchases, halting the new Town Hall project and selling off town assets were also offered as possible cost saving measures.

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