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Jun 23, 2009 5:24 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Zwirn proposes action plan on town finances

Jun 23, 2009 5:24 PM

Democratic Town Supervisor candidate Ben Zwirn last week announced the first part of a two-part financial action plan for East Hampton Town and criticized his opponent, Bill Wilkinson, for not agreeing to debate him early and often.

Mr. Wilkinson countered that he has been too busy campaigning door-to-door right now to entertain early debates and said that he is happy to stick with the three customary debates this fall leading up to the election as was the case when he ran supervisor in 2007.

Mr. Zwirn, who is a deputy Suffolk County executive, served in the early 1990s as the supervisor of the Town of North Hempstead during a financial crisis not unlike the one that East Hampton is now facing.

While the first part of his plan covers the nuts and bolts of good government, he said in the coming weeks he will release a more specific phase-two plan that will cover how he plans to cut expenses and generate revenue. He said this week that his second plan will likely look into consolidating departments “so that we can reduce some of the chiefs in the town if possible.” He also said that he wants to see if the town can generate more revenue from its justice court and that he thinks the town’s code enforcement revenue is low given the size of the department.

If he is elected, Mr. Zwirn said he plans to roll out a course of changes that start with overhauling the way the town develops its budgets.

“It’s a virtually useless document,” he said, adding that a budget should contain a narrative of how and why money is being spent.

“A budget is a living document. If revenues do not come in immediately, you have to take corrective action on the expense side,” he said. He added that he hopes to have a budget calendar, cash-flow projections and better controls in place within six months of taking office.

He stressed that he would not be able to do so by skimping on staffing in the town comptroller’s office.

“You have to have an excellent group of people. You can take money from the supervisor’s budget and beef up the finance department,” he said. “I would rather see another fiscal officer in there than an executive assistant. It would be very helpful to have people in there who have municipal experience. You can’t settle for less. It’s sometimes cheap this year, and then it costs us a fortune to dig out from this. If they had quality people from the beginning, they could have avoided problems and embarrassment.”

While Mr. Zwirn said that his opponents have done little more than point fingers and talk about transparency, Mr. Wilkinson, who was the senior vice president for human resources at the Walt Disney Company before retiring to his vacation home in Montauk, said that Mr. Zwirn is only echoing a message his own campaign has been making since before the 2007 election.

“You don’t show up at the end of the revolution and say that I’m here,” he said. “He adopted the New York State comptroller’s recommendations, which any smart executive would do. It basically was a repetition of the message that I’ve been sending since the campaign of 2007, when the Democratic Committee accused me of spreading misunderstanding and disbursing fear. He’s been totally silent on the issues for the past year.”

The two candidates are in agreement on many of the financial practices that they hope the town will implement, and both said this week that they did not support the idea of a one-time tax plan, which has been gathering steam among the current Town Board members.

“Taxes are the last thing I want to do in this economy. I have to see exactly where I can save every dime before we start raising property taxes,” said Mr. Zwirn. “People are having trouble paying their taxes. Collections for the first time in East Hampton are up. The good news for the government is that Suffolk County is required to make up the difference under the Suffolk County Tax Act, but what it will tell you is that people are struggling in this economy.”

“I don’t care for it. I think that the tax burden on the people right now is very, very serious and there are a lot of people in this community that cannot afford another tax,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “I think we should go to every effort, none of which I’ve seen to date, to relieve our good residents of any further taxation.”

Despite the arraignment of former town budget officer Ted Hults two weeks ago and the prospect of current Supervisor Bill McGintee facing criminal charges relating to improper budget transfers and misstatements in two of the town’s bond prospectuses, Mr. Zwirn said that he believes the current supervisor should still prepare the 2010 budget because of the massive amount of public attention that it will receive.

“He’s still the chief fiscal officer of the town,” he said. “If the numbers are not right, people will be able to weigh in. Everybody will have the opportunity to scrutinize it. I’m sure there won’t be any budget in the history of this town that will be more scrutinized.”

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I think in this day and age the people want more than three strictly formatted debates. The fact is we want to see the guts of each candidate's platform and we want to seem him defend it against questioning.
By Scratch (26), Sag Harbor on Jun 23, 09 9:05 PM
I think in this day and age the people want more than three strictly formatted debates. The fact is we want to see the guts of each candidate's platform and we want to see him defend it against questioning.
By Scratch (26), Sag Harbor on Jun 23, 09 9:07 PM
Wilkinson has been out there for almost three years laying out his positions and what needs to be done. Mr. Zwirn has been silent until two months ago (he did contribute to the East Hampton Democrats as recently as December 24, 2008 and thus the McGintee regime) so he needs any public forum he can get to play catch up. We don't need someone who needs to catch up, we need someone who is a leader and has been out front for three years. Check out the News 12 debate from two years ago -- Wilkinson ...more
By truthinbonac (46), Amagansett on Jun 23, 09 10:07 PM
Perhaps you didn't know that Mr. Zwirn is now the deputy county executive and has been active helping the county executive on many issues for the entire county and that would include East Hampton. And to the contrary, I haven't heard Mr. Wilkinson speaking up at all, no letters to the editor and nothing in any head lines. It seems more that while Mr. Zwirn has been working silently to help the county, and town Mr. Wilkinson has been, I guess tending to his business.

Indeed, while Mr. ...more
By Scratch (26), Sag Harbor on Jun 23, 09 10:45 PM
1 member liked this comment
I agree with Truthinbonac, Mr Wilkinson has been meeting with many local groups over the last 3 years, I have seen him in all kinds of meetings, Immigration and others.
Hope EH gets a great Supervisor that can clean the mess!!!!!!



truthinbonac (Amagansett)

"Wilkinson has been out there for almost three years laying out his positions and what needs to be done. Mr. Zwirn has been silent until two months ago (he did contribute to the East Hampton Democrats as recently ...more
By Bel (86), southampton on Jun 24, 09 12:21 PM
Zwirn has lived here for decades but 9 out of 10 people never heard of him.
Zwirn works for Levy who wanted to endorse McGintee last year.
Zwirn was blaming the economy for our town's financial problems BEFORE Zwirn is NOW blaming the Town Board and distancing himself from them. HOW SMART!
Zwirn was brought in by Deb Foster who knew there was money missing from the CPF BEFORE the election, but waited until AFTER to speak up.
Zwirn appears to be a well spoken smooth politician.
MANY ...more
By disappointed (96), wainscott on Jun 25, 09 2:58 PM
another one just like the other one.out with the outdated koolaide and in with the new batch.
By pinga (90), hamptonbays on Jun 26, 09 6:54 PM
To Scratch from the Harbor.

Mr. Wilkinson was living in Montauk 50 years ago. He pumped gas for Vinny Grimes when he was a teenager. His mom played the organ at the Catholic Curch in Montauk for 30 years. All the old timers in Montauk have known Wilkinson since he was a kid. To imply otherwise is an insult to all those Montauk residents. He is far from new to the area. Ask Bill Gardiner, he heavily touted Mr. Wilkinson two years ago as someone who knows the east end because of those 50 ...more
By truthinbonac (46), Amagansett on Jun 28, 09 6:07 PM