If elected, Zach Cohen, who is running on the Democratic ticket for East Hampton Town supervisor, would add a comptroller and administrative officer to town government to increase the town’s fiscal accountability and efficiency, he said at a press conference on Friday at his house in Springs.
Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, Democratic candidates for town board, joined him at the press conference.
As proposed, the comptroller would be a certified public accountant who would replace the politically appointed position of budget officer. According to Mr. Cohen, a comptroller hired on a long-term basis would bring a level of institutional knowledge and continuity that the town needs. In addition, he believes a nonpartisan comptroller could help remove the financial management of the town from partisan control.
Mr. Cohen said that the town’s budget advisory committee, of which he had been a member, had recommended such a position in 2009. That committee “experienced the problems of a politically appointed budget officer and then experienced the difference of having a C.P.A. comptroller who gave unbiased opinions on options available to solve financial issues.”
Now, the town relies on outside accountants to do much of the work that could be accomplished by a comptroller, Mr. Cohen said. In addition, he believes that as the town’s budget officer is not required to be a C.P.A., he or she may lack the requisite skills to work effectively with such outside professionals. According to Mr. Cohen, a comptroller who is a C.P.A. would also provide assurances to the state comptroller, bond rating agencies, and investors that what East Hampton Town represents to the public is accurate.
As an example of the kind of efficiencies Mr. Cohen believes a comptroller could generate, he said that the town “has never paid New York State to participate in the 2010 retirement incentive program. The estimated cost is $1,354,016 spread over five years with the first payment due in February of 2012. The town could have chosen to pay the amount due in one lump sum,” which according to his calculations would have saved $270,000 given an implied interest rate of 13 percent per year.
Mr. Cohen would also require the comptroller to provide monthly financial updates to the town board as well as anyone who asked for such information. He asserted that the board has not provided a quarterly report since the third-quarter 2010 report was distributed in December.
A nonpartisan comptroller could also eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest that arise because a politically appointed budget officer controls the purchasing department, Mr. Cohen said. “Purchasing should be a stand-alone department answering directly to the board, or it should report to a nonpartisan comptroller.”
The town’s present structure, he said, provides little in the way of interdepartmental management, a situation an administrative officer could dramatically improve. An administrative officer “would liaison across all departments and implement the town board’s policies . . . allowing the supervisor and board to devote more time to policy study and discussions.”
One of the first tasks of an administrative officer, according to Mr. Cohen, would be to prepare a comprehensive index of town functions and designate a principal person or department to manage each function. Such an index, he said, “would create an organizational structure where it currently doesn’t exist. . . . You need to know who is doing the work in order to measure if it is being done effectively.” The index would be made available to the public in different media, including on the Internet so people could, for example, know whom to call when they want to report a deer carcass on Accabonac Road.
The concept of an administrative officer, or the roughly analogous position of town manager, has been endorsed by East Hampton’s League of Women Voters, as well as the town’s budget and finance committee.
And how to pay for those positions? According to Mr. Cohen, eliminating the budget officer position would free up $90,000 that could be used to fund a large part of the administrative officer’s salary. The comptroller’s estimated $120,000 salary could be paid by the decreased use of financial subcontractors and outside auditors once the comptroller was fulfilling many of the functions that had previously been outsourced by the town.