Report of strong finances, butaffordable housing struggles continue

Supervisor Says Southampton In Tip-Top Shape




Southampton Town Hall. Independent/Desirée Keegan

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman is calling the local economy “the strongest it’s ever been.”

In a May 28 State of the Town address, the supervisor reported that the town was financially stable, embarking on several infrastructure projects, making strides to improve water quality, seeing a reduction in major crime, and playing a leadership role in land preservation and environmental protection.

“The state of the town is excellent,” Schneiderman said. “Things are going very well, but you don’t have to just take it from me. Independent agencies like our auditors and Moody’s agree that things are going quite well.”

The town has maintained a AAA credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service the last four years, seeing interest rates reduced from an average 3.09 percent to 1.42 percent, which will allow the town to save more than $725,000 over a 10-year period after refinancing $13.3 million in outstanding debt.

“We continue to budget and to forecast revenues conservatively,” town Comptroller Len Marchese said previously. “Moody’s report confirms the value of these sound financial practices.”

Property values also continue to rise, seeing a 9.7-percent jump on the most recent assessment rolls. The town is now at $73.5 billion in total assessed valuation. Schneiderman attributed the rise to new construction in each hamlet. The increased value has allowed the town to lower the tax rate over the last four years.

The town board recently passed a taxpayer protection act that will freeze assessments for the next two years while a committee studies the effects of regular reassessments on those with fixed incomes.

Because there has seen a significant increase in the town’s fund balance year over year, a 54-percent increase over the last five years as a result of codifying best practices, and bonded indebtedness fall by 40 percent, or $54 million, over the same five years, Schneiderman said he’s not worried about the town coming up short.

“We have a new debt reduction policy where any unanticipated surpluses are used to defray borrowing to pay off debt, rather than borrowing that year, which alone has reduced debt by $2.2 million,” Schneiderman said, also pointing to results of an independent audit report to the state comptroller by Melville-based Nawrocki Smith LLP. “Not only were there no reportable deficiencies — things they tell the state comptroller that have to get fixed — or red flags, but there were no recommendations for improvement, which is the first I’ve seen,” he said. “They couldn’t find any areas where we could change something to make it better. So, it sounds like the independent auditors think we’re on the right track in every regard.”

Water Quality Improvement

Southampton has funded over $19.2 million in Community Preservation Fund water quality improvement projects. Twenty percent of the annual CPF budget is set aside for these types of upgrades. The town has installed or approved over 100 residential sanitary systems, and completed stormwater runoff projects at Lake Agawam, Sag Harbor Cove, Quantuck Bay, and others. A wastewater infrastructure project was also completed in Westhampton Beach. For the first time in 12 years, Stony Brook University Center for Clean Water Technology Director Dr. Christopher Gobler, who also runs the Gobler Laboratory across from the Stony Brook Southampton Marine Sciences Center, said there’s no brown tide in Shinnecock Bay.

“I want to thank Councilman John Bouvier for his leadership on water quality issues,” Schneiderman said. “A lot of these things wouldn’t have happened without him. He’s been working very closely on these issues. I know he’s deeply committed to improving our water quality.”

The town has received over $6 million in grants the last few years, with Hampton Bays’ Good Ground Park being a major benefactor, along with the Riverside Maritime Park. Funding through grants has also helped the board mitigate perfluorinated compound issues by funding the installation of water mains in East Quogue, provide electric vehicle charging stations at Hampton Bays’ Ponquogue Beach, and create a bike path from Good Ground to Red Creek Park.

“It helps keep taxes down. It helps improve infrastructure,” Schneiderman said of the grants. “Things that we want to offer to our residents, if we can do it with state or federal money, that’s always a good thing.”

On the public safety front there’s been a 20-percent decrease in all major crime since 2017.

“You don’t see that kind of number,” Schneiderman said, crediting the work of police Chief Steven Skrynecki using the latest technology and analytics to predict where crimes might occur most often.

Town police have confiscated 300 bags of heroin, and seen a 68-percent decrease in fatal drug overdoses from 2017-18. Fatal drug overdoses in Southampton climbed from five to 19 between 2016 and 2017, before dropping to six last year. There’s been one reported death from an overdose this year.

Protecting The Environment

Southampton Online Solutions, developed by the town’s IT department, has made reporting code enforcement violations easier for neighbors. The system has shown a spike in usage since its inception, up from 648 reports last year to 1307 in the first quarter of 2019 alone. There’s also been a reverse of this system.

“Notices are up, but actual number of summonses is down, which means people are complying, fixing problems,” Schneiderman said. “That’s exactly how we want code enforcement to work, so that everyone’s quality of life is protected.”

Residents can credit Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera for advancement on town’s commitment to use 100-percent renewable energy by 2025. The town is exploring a system that would allow residents to form a co-op to contract for electricity and save on rates and even mandate renewable sources. Preston Scalera has also worked to establish “green zones” at town-owned properties by mandating electric equipment, which has reduced pollutants by 10,000 tons on top of reducing noise. The town’s LED streetlight switchover has reduced electricity used by 1 million kWh while saving the town thousands of dollars over time.

Councilwoman Julie Lofstad put forth legislation banning plastic straws and polystyrene to coincide with the plastic bag ban, and is working on a law to punish those intentionally releasing mylar balloons.

The commuter connection service also started moving this year, with the supervisor taking the train several times to see it in action. He said two weeks ago, there wasn’t an open seat on the early morning train. This service was pushed to reduce traffic and pollution.

“I’ve spoken to people who said it’s changed their life,” Schneiderman said. “One woman said she’s saved an hour to an hour-and-a-half each day. She feels like she’s getting her life back. And she’s making friends.”

The town still sees challenges ahead particularly with affordable housing. Eighty new affordable rental and ownership units have been constructed over the last year, with the Sandy Hollow and Speonk Commons projects, which were done in conjunction with the Southampton Business Alliance and Long Island Housing Partnership, nearing completion.

The town amended its accessory apartment law last year to decrease the acreage needed to have a rental unit from 3/4 to 1/2. The town has already approved two homeowners looking to add rental units, and Schneiderman said 12 others are currently going through the process. The Community Development Block Grant to fund community projects has risen to $250,000 yearly through the work of town Director of Housing & Community Development Diana Weir.

“We will need to tweak it as time goes on, look for additional funding to try to make it easier for homeowners to take advantage of it, but it’s an improvement,” Schneiderman said. He will be accepting a Vision Long Island 2019 Smart Growth Award on behalf of the town for this legislation, which received applause Island-wide.

Michael Daly, a member of the NextGen Housing Collaborative and East End Yes! In My Backyard, an affordable housing advocacy group, also praised the town’s efforts.

“Congrats on all your accomplishments over the last year,” he said to the board. “The state of the town being the way it is is a positive thing to see, and I thank you for working tirelessly even with very little thanks.”

While the board is taking a hard look at infrastructure across the town and planning for the future, Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, the liaison to the Hampton Bays Water District, is helping work on a 10-year capital plan of the facility.

“We have challenges ahead as always, but we have a great team to face those challenges,” Schneiderman said. “Each person on this board brings different skills to the table and collectively we seem to come up with really great solutions. The accomplishments we’ve made in the last few years, and even the last year alone, give me confidence moving forward. The state of the town is it’s in excellent shape and we’re going to keep it that way.”

desiree@indyeastend.com