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Dec 23, 2008 5:33 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East Hampton CPF spending questioned

Dec 23, 2008 5:33 AM

The East Hampton Town Board is poised to approve paying for a pair of projects with money from the town’s Community Preservation Fund in 2009 but some officials are warning that the proposed work could end up costing taxpayers in the end.

The board held a public hearing on Friday on its CPF “management and stewardship” plan for 2009. It calls for a number of improvements to properties purchased for preservation with CPF funds, including the renovation of the Selah Lester House at Cedar and North Main streets and the Amagansett Lifesaving Station on Atlantic Avenue. The two renovation projects account for more than half of the plan’s total $846,000 budget.

But state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the drafters of the state rules that created and guide the CPF program—and a member of the committee that helped the town develop the management and stewardship plan—said this week the town may be overstepping its bounds in using the CPF to modernize the Selah Lester House. The town plans to use it as a municipal office for its land acquisitions department, which administers CPF purchases.

Assemblyman Thiele, one of the authors of the CPF program, through which the town began making purchases in 1999, doubted whether the Lester renovations would past muster when its costs are reviewed in the annual audit of CPF funds that each town participating in the program must submit to the state starting in 2009.

“To use CPF funds for refurbishing, you have to show that it meets the guidelines for historic renovation,” Mr. Thiele said in a phone interview on Monday. “Converting a building to an office, with heating and air conditioning ... whether that is going to meet the state and federal standards is in question.”

After questionable uses of CPF funds by East Hampton and other towns were discovered early this year, the state, largely at Mr. Thiele’s urging, convened a committee to overhaul the CPF program. Among several new bylaws is the requirement that each town have its CPF spending audited independently each year. The development of an annual management plan, like the one East Hampton aired in the hearing on Friday, is also a new requirement.

“I would do due diligence if I were them,” Mr. Thiele said, “because ultimately all of these expenditures are going to be audited. If they don’t meet the law, the money is going to have to be replenished.”

The board has steadfastly defended its plans to use CPF money to restore the 18th century Selah Lester House, including the modernization of the interior as well as historically accurate renovations to the façade and structure. When the work, which has been underway for several months, is completed, the building will house the town’s three-employee Land Acquisitions Department, which manages the CPF program.

Zachary Cohen, a member of a committee appointed last spring by Supervisor Bill McGintee to help develop new CPF rules and plans for future expenses, has challenged the board repeatedly in recent weeks over the modern additions to the Lester house. But at Friday’s hearing, Mr. Cohen didn’t raise any doubts about the legitimacy of the expenditures. He did warn the board about some of their other accounting steps in the CPF budget. He noted that, with CPF revenues not certain, the town may face a smaller income stream than expected and should not lay out such an ambitious workload in advance because it will be hard to cancel projects in the face of shortfalls.

“It’s a lot easier to not have something in and add it later than it is to have it in and then get rid of it,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s much harder if I tell my wife ‘I’m taking you to Paris for your birthday if our stock portfolio is in good shape’ and have it not happen than if I waited until a month before and said, ‘Would you like to go to Paris.’”

Mr. Cohen warned that, if projects are done or underway and then revenues are not what they expect, the town’s general funds will be stuck with the bill.

Supervisor McGintee jokingly countered Mr. Cohen, noting that if the town didn’t include the proposed projects in the work plan, they would have to hold another public hearing to amend the plan before they began each one if the money were available. Using Mr. Cohen’s analogy, he likened the additional step to his having to seek the permission of his children to take his wife to Paris.

Land Acquisitions manager Scott Wilson said the town has conservatively estimated its revenues from the CPF’s real estate sales tax at $10 million for 2009. By budgeting $850,000 for management and stewardship, the town plans to stay well below the 10-percent maximum it can spend on managing and improving properties and structures purchased with CPF money. Mr. Wilson said that a number of the projects in the plan, including the Amagansett Lifesaving Station renovation, could be put on hold if it looks as though the actual revenues from the CPF are going to be substantially lower. Mr. Wilson said the town’s CPF account currently had approximately $8 million in it.

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Potential abuses of the CPF are strarting to run wild. These politicians think they have a new checkbook to play with. This money was meant for land preservation only. These new "bylaws" that are popping up are self-serving and destroy the goals laid out in the mission statement of the CPF.

Let me propose one - distribute all accrued CPF money to the school districts on a district by district basis. A predetermined proportion of the CPF money will go directly to the school districts thus ...more
By William Rodney (538), southampton on Dec 24, 08 9:49 AM
The Selah Lester property was bought for open space preservation--it is illegal to use CPF money on the property for anything other than tearing down buildings. Instead the Town is using CPF money to upgrade an old building for Town offices under the guise of historic preservation. The house was not considered historic when the Town bought it, when the Town did a 1990 historic building study or in 2005 when the Town looked at North Main Street as part of the Comprehensive Plan. The property also ...more
By Neighbor (10), East Hampton on Dec 26, 08 1:37 PM