The Southampton Town Board and the trustees have some homework to do to, but one thing is certain; the first separate budget for the trustees will come at no additional cost to taxpayers.
After a first-of-its-kind meeting between the two boards April 2, it was decided a committee will be formed to hammer out the specifics, including a detailed cost analysis that will seek to determine any additional “hidden fees” that are currently covered by the town for such things as trustees’ office space, utilities, accounting, and attorney fees.
Assistant Town Attorney Martha Reichert clarified questions on bonding, saying she confirmed the trustees will remain ineligible to float bonds on their own. Town Comptroller Len Marchese said the trustees would have to rely on the town board for borrowing.
“Regardless of the agreement the town has, the town is ultimately responsible. We’d be on the hook,” he said, stating he believes something should be written into an intermunicipal agreement to protect the town in the future. “In terms of bonding there could be some kind of trigger that would allow you to reject any for fiscal prudence because it doesn’t fit into your parameters,” he told the board.
But because the trustee board is not a municipality nor bound by town law, board members agreed an intermunicipal agreement would not be appropriate and that a memorandum of understanding would be better.
Trustee President Ed Warner said his board is not looking to “take money and run with it.”
“We did have a large windfall after Sandy — over $1 million — which we used to help the town because it was in financial crisis,” he said. “We bought equipment we would normally ask you to buy in the maintenance department.”
Trustee Scott Horowitz said his board is looking to maintain a stable fund balance and increase transparency.
“We have to be very careful how we manage our finances, and at the same time maintaining infrastructure that’s important to everyone in the town,” Horowitz said. “And in case we get into some sort of litigation, we want to make sure that there’s a healthy fund balance there in addition, and a chunk of money set aside for those trustee roads.”
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Councilman John Bouvier agreed they’d like to see the trustees become even more of an independent body, although Schneiderman did not hesitate to voice some worries.
“It’s been a concern if you lacked adequate funding and we’re not able to raise taxes that you might turn to increasing fees to make up the difference — and that would make it harder for our residents to access public places — or sell off properties,” he said. “For the most part our interests align, but there will be times when they don’t.”
With a potential agreement the trustees would have the ability to hire staff but would also be held to the two percent tax cap increase year over year as the town is.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said he appreciated what the trustees do, but said he was skeptical of giving them their own tax line. Trustee Bill Pell, who recently shied away from supporting the measure, agreed.
“We may find out it’s too expensive to do it,” Pell said.
While there was not a public hearing on the matter, Schneiderman let audience members comment during the April 2 meeting. One man echoed a sentiment shared by Trustee Ann Welker, who feared a situation similar to Brexit.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m not sure, in my own mind, that this is going to clarify a very complicated issue,” he said. “I just have a feeling this is going to complicate what has been working pretty well. Maybe not perfectly, but pretty well.”
If the legislation passes and no agreement is reached the two bodies could be back in court, which is why Horowitz is looking to get ahead of a decision to help the trustees find stability without giving away their authority or breaching their fiduciary duty.
“This is a golden opportunity for these two boards to do something on the right side of history,” Horowitz said. “This board has the keys to the economic engine of the entire town. We can do something great to protect and defend this for future generations. That’s all we’re asking to do in a stable, transparent fashion. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s uniquely set up this way and we want to work together with what makes sense for us today, and in the future.”