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Mar 20, 2019 10:25 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Battle For Southampton Town Trustee Tax Line Exposes Deep Rift Between Board Members

Southampton Town Trustee Scott Horowitz defended the ability for the Trustees to get their own tax line on the Town budget. GREG WEHNER
Mar 20, 2019 10:25 AM

The Southampton Town Trustees voted on Monday to seek the Town Board’s support of two bills in front of the State Legislature that are designed to strengthen the Trustees’ authority.

While one bill gained unanimous support from the Trustees, the other exposed a rift among the board’s members.

The measure supported by all five board members seeks backing from the Town Board to clarify the rights of the Trustees to manage and protect the beach easement and ownership of the town bay bottoms.

But the second measure, which would establish a separate town property tax line for the Trustees, squeaked through with a 3-2 vote. Trustees Bill Pell and Ann Welker voted against the legislation, while Trustees Scott Horowitz, Ed Warner Jr. and Bruce Stafford voted in favor of it.

Under the tax line legislation, which State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle introduced in Albany, the Trustees would be able to prepare and adopt an annual budget as part of the town’s budgetary process, and collect taxes to fund it.

The legislation would give the Trustees the ability to fully manage their own finances. In doing so, the Trustees would not be permitted to increase the annual budget by more than 2 percent per year, and they would be required to have the budget submitted to the Town Board for review no later than September 20 each year.

In 2015, the State Supreme Court of Appeals reversed a 2014 decision that labeled the Trustees as a division of the Southampton Town government and required them to turn over their revenues to the Town Board. The reversal gave the Trustees the right to maintain control over their finances, which, at the time, primarily came from selling sand, in addition to permit and dock fees.

The Trustees no longer sell sand, which helped pay the legal costs of numerous lawsuits filed against the Board of Trustees, which was established in 1686 by the Dongan Patent.

In order to function independently of the town, the Trustees are seeking a tax line that would work similar to a town fire district tax. While the budget would still require approval from the Town Board, the Trustees would be allowed to manage it however they wanted.

Town Comptroller Len Marchese told the Trustees at a meeting on March 13 that the town’s general fund contributes approximately $2.5 million toward the operation of the Trustees. If a tax line were approved, Mr. Marchese said, the town would transfer the money from its levy to the Trustees’ levy.

“We would lower town taxes by $2.5 million, and it would transfer to your levy, $2.5 million,” he said. “It’s the same as it is today, but you control it and it would be your base line.”

Mr. Pell attended a Town Board meeting on March 12, when the board was slated to vote on throwing its support behind the two bills in front of the state. While at the meeting, however, Mr. Pell told Town Board members he did not support the tax line measure.

His announcement came nearly three years after the Trustees voted unanimously in 2016 to have Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle draft legislation to approve a tax line. In order for the legislation to move forward, the Town Board needs to give its support in the form of a home rule resolution.

Like the rest of the Trustees, Mr. Pell ran for re-election on the idea that the Trustees needed a separate tax line.

He said he still thinks a tax line is needed, but he wants to make sure it is fully vetted before throwing his support behind the bill.

“I cannot vote on this until I see it all first,” he said at a Trustees meeting on Monday. “I think we should take our time and hire a consultant company to look at all of this.”

Mr. Pell told the other Trustees that he was primarily concerned about charge-backs by the town. Currently, the Trustees occupy space in Town Hall, utilize the services Mr. Marchese and other divisions run by the town, are provided staff by the town and are factored into the $3 million from the town. Mr. Schneiderman said the town could charge the Trustees for these services if a tax line is approved.

“They will not be given free rent,” he said on Monday. “If they wish to stay in our building, we can negotiate the arrangement. All of their funding comes from the town, or at least most of it, so the town would be paying itself.

“The idea is for them to operate fully independent of the town,” he added. “They need to be prepared to hire their own staff and legal.”

Like Mr. Pell, Ms. Welker told board members she was in favor of the tax line but wanted to make sure she and the rest of the board have all of the information before making a final decision. She said she would like to see a plan before the board votes on its approval.

“I’m concerned that our finances are very entangled with the town,” Ms. Welker said. “We need a breakdown of where everything would come from and where it would go.”

Mr. Warner told Mr. Pell during a dispute on March 13 that he could respect that he has an issue with the legislation, but rather than go to the Town Board, he should have discussed it with the other Trustees first.

Mr. Warner said he also understood where Mr. Pell was coming from regarding charge-backs, because under an earlier administration, the Trustees were paying for a lot of services through the town.

“We want to make sure if we’re going to get a million dollars and it costs us a million and a half dollars to run the Trustees, and there’s going to be a shortfall, we gotta anticipate that,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Horowitz said that, in 1995, the Trustees were supposed to get a tax line, according to an agreement signed by the Trustees and Town Board. The agreement specified what services would be provided by the town and how everything would be handled.

But the agreement was never finalized, and efforts since have sought to de-fund the Trustees, he said.

“All the parties need to come to the table to do the right thing and support what the people of Southampton need, and that’s a strong board of Trustees to protect and defend that easement that’s on the outer beach, in the interest of public access for everybody,” Mr. Horowitz said. “At the end of the day, I think there was a golden opportunity for the Trustees and the Town Board to work with our state assemblyman and our senator, and accomplish what would be good for everybody in this town.”

Mr. Horowitz blamed politics for getting in the way. At times beet red in the face, he defended the legislation and pushed for unity among the other board members.

But the board ended up split, 3-2.

“Politics doesn’t belong in the Trustee board, in any way shape or form, and that’s kind of what I saw going on,” he said. “We need to settle it down. We’ve got the heart of this town in our hands, that’s what we have. We need to do the best we can, for everybody, working together.”

The Town Board delayed its votes to support both pieces of legislation and is expected to vote again at the next board meeting on March 26.

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They should sell more of our park land to raise funds...

Ann & Bill are doing the right thing. (Someone tell Turkey Bridge I’m siding with Democrats). The other Trustees can’t be trusted with money.
By Draggerman (907), Southampton on Mar 21, 19 3:58 PM
1 member liked this comment
"The other Trustees can’t be trusted with money." What politician can? And how long before that with the "chargebacks" from the Town, the Trustees will be forced to raise taxes more? I can't imagine the revenue they generate from dock and permit fees could possibly equal/exceed the $3/million a year they're getting from the Town coffers already. Stay the course, Ann & Bill!
By MrsD (49), Hampton Bays on Mar 21, 19 4:23 PM
You OK, Drag? Get some rest and drink lots of fluids.
By Turkey Bridge (1949), Quiogue on Mar 22, 19 2:19 PM
We are already over taxed the last thing we need is another taxing authority. When do they publish a report on what is being done with the fees being collected and how the money is spent. Will the Villages as well as every hamlet get taxed. The DEC is already funded to support the water and waterfront. Let the DEC fund the Trustees.

By Ernie (86), Hampton Bays on Mar 21, 19 4:47 PM
The DEC is an out of control agency with seemingly unlimited funds when it comes to litigation and incredible police powers , they are no friend to the Town. That being said, Trustee Pell and Trustee Welker have brought up some very valid points that need to be studied. No need to rush into a situation that might blow up in their faces, Rose Hill anyone? Bruce is out, perhaps it is prudent to wait until the next Board is seated.
By bigfresh (4384), north sea on Mar 21, 19 5:08 PM
1 member liked this comment
To clarify my position, I am in favor of the first Bill which solidifies the Trustee's authority and powers granted by the Dongan Patent, the tax line Bill needs to be studied , in depth, before moving forward.
By bigfresh (4384), north sea on Mar 21, 19 5:39 PM
Turmoil on the board that gave up the ship. I think the captain of the ship, horrorwitz wants the middle seat Ed is riding the wave. Finally Pell has a set. Ann is lost, trying to find her way.The other guy is just bad...
Come back FRED, the boat needs a Captain...
By knitter (1725), Southampton on Mar 21, 19 7:10 PM
Turmoil on the board that gave up the ship. I think the captain of the ship, horrorwitz wants the middle seat Ed is riding the wave. Finally Pell has a set. Ann is lost, trying to find her way.The other guy is just bad...
Come back FRED, the boat needs a Captain...
By knitter (1725), Southampton on Mar 21, 19 7:10 PM
2 members liked this comment
I just finished watching the last Trustee meeting online and it seems that it's prudent that before entering into an agreement , eg. the proposed tax line, that all potential costs and expenditures be documented. It's the prudent course to take. Another poor decision is not acceptable.
By bigfresh (4384), north sea on Mar 21, 19 10:52 PM
Horowitz gave away the trustee land at Rose Hill and now he wants his own tax line so he can spend more money any way he wants. Forget it. Keep up the fight Billy.
By Gillnetter (105), Hampton Bays on Mar 22, 19 6:10 AM
Why is no one indicted for giving away a park? Who is the person who made the deal?
By chief1 (2725), southampton on Mar 22, 19 8:59 AM
1 member liked this comment
get your popcorn and lets watch this unravel
By Local247 (31), Southampton on Mar 22, 19 9:19 AM
If anyone watches the last Trustee meeting online , it seems as if Bruce Stafford was the one who brought the proposal to the Board , could be why he lost all party endorsements this election cycle? Why was he in contact with the property owner in the first place? Is there some sort of connection between them? Any connections between ANY of the Trustees and the property it?
By bigfresh (4384), north sea on Mar 22, 19 11:20 AM
Mr Horrorwitz wants to be trustee pres and then town super.
By Resident tax (164), Hampton bays ny on Mar 22, 19 4:07 PM
Bruce = trouble glad he is off ballot although I would have loved to cast my vote against him Low Life
By xtiego (696), bridgehampton on Mar 22, 19 6:53 PM
1 member liked this comment
Fred we need you to come back
By xtiego (696), bridgehampton on Mar 22, 19 6:56 PM
Don Law for trustee
By watchoutnow968 (49), Southampton on Mar 25, 19 7:02 AM
Does anyone have any proof that this board has ever saved so much as a tablespoon or water?
By SlimeAlive (1180), Southampton on Mar 25, 19 8:26 AM
Scott Horowitz for ex-Trustee. Not politics, just common sense and good judgment.
By Turkey Bridge (1949), Quiogue on Mar 26, 19 2:54 PM
8k run & 3 mile walk, Agawam Park, Southampton Rotary Club fundraiser