Lower Taxes Come at a Cost

Cancellation of the leaf program brought savings, but exactly how much?

    Arthur French handed the East Hampton Town Board a check for $11 at a meeting last Thursday night. “That’s my tax savings,” he said, telling the board to keep it.
    Although the board cut the budget this year, decreasing residents’ taxes, it also cut the fall leaf pickup service that had been provided by the Highway Department. After approving suspension of the service on a trial basis last fall, the board voted recently to eliminate the service permanently.
    “That was your bottom line, including school taxes,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson told Mr. French, taking umbrage at his criticism. School taxes account for a large portion of the overall tax bill paid by property owners each year.
    “And you cost me $565 just to get rid of the leaves,” Mr. French retorted. He, and dozens of other residents who spoke at a hearing on suspending the leaf pickup program last year, said that for those who could not haul the leaves from their properties to the dump themselves, the cost of paying someone to do it would far exceed any savings on taxes that would result from eliminating the program.
    Just how much the town was expected to save in its budget was also at issue. Scott King, the highway superintendent, said the net savings in salaries and equipment would be $180,000, while Mr. Wilkinson and other board members who supported the elimination said it would be closer to $550,000.
    Mr. French said at last year’s hearing that, using the board members’ figure, dropping the program would save $46 per property tax bill, or, under Mr. King’s analysis, $18 per household. 
    “Send me a bill,” he told the board then. “I’ll be glad to give you a check for $46 to come and pick up my leaves.”
    “You were elected to serve the people,” Mr. French told the board last week, “and some of your decisions are counter to that. You heard us,” he said of the speakers at last year’s hearing, “but you didn’t listen to us.” Only a handful of residents who spoke at that hearing were in favor of eliminating the Highway Department leaf pickup.
    And, said Mr. French, a phalanx of volunteers who would help elderly or otherwise needy residents dispose of their fallen leaves never materialized. “I’m still waiting for your volunteers,” he told Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who organized the program. “I’ve been standing out there all winter.”
    “We did listen, and that’s why we decided to suspend it for a year and not eliminate it,” Ms. Quigley said. The final decision was made after the fall season, she said, which did not yield any complaints or accidents attributed to uncollected fallen leaves. Mr. French said the public did not protest the final decision “because they gave up.”
    He applauded the board’s accomplishments in improving the town’s fiscal matters, “but you can’t do it on the backs of the working people here,” he said.
    And, he asked, referring to a permit issued for the MTK: Music to Know concert to be held at the East Hampton Airport, “When did the town board become a shill for two guys who want to make money, while you take money out of our pockets?”
    Responses by both Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley grew heated after Mr. French called them “a Taliban board.”
    “I served as an infantryman,” Mr. Wilkinson said, “. . . and for you to call me a Taliban. . . . I’m telling you man to man,” he said.
    “And we’re not shills. And we’re most certainly not Taliban,” Ms. Quigley said. “I am not willing to take the level of disrespect with which you make your arguments.”
    “You’re not an emperor. You were elected supervisor,” Mr. French told Mr. Wilkinson.
    Also at last Thursday’s meeting, the board agreed to increase the fees charged to commercial haulers for disposal of waste, including leaves, at the town recycling and trash transfer centers, which could result in higher prices charged to consumers. The per-load fee charged to haulers without yearly permits was raised from $15 to $25 per load.
    Also at last week’s board meeting, the town board appointed Htun Han, an Amagansett real estate agent, to replace Susan Ecker on the town’s assessment review board. Ms. Ecker, who was appointed in February to a five-year term, has resigned from the post.
    The board also issued a mass-gathering permit to Project MOST, the sponsor of a farmers market held each Friday from May 27 through Sept. 30 in the parking lot of Nick and Toni’s restaurant on East Hampton’s North Main Street. The board had initially denied the market a permit last year, calling it a commercial enterprise under the restaurant’s auspices, but issued the permit after Project MOST, a nonprofit organization, became the sponsor.
    Councilwoman Quigley said that the board hopes to offer the market use of a town property across the street, the former Lester homestead. In order to do that, state legislation must be passed to allow a profit-making enterprise to use the site, which was purchased under the community preservation program. New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is working in Albany on such a bill, she said.
    Mr. Thiele said this week that he generally supports legislation, which has passed the Senate and is before the Assembly, that would include “retail farm operations” such as farmstands under the definition of agriculture, allowing them on land designated as agricultural.
    However, the bill is not specifically aimed at community preservation fund purchases, nor is the Lester property held by the town in use as farmland. The goal of the legislation, according to a draft, is to “enhance farmers’ ability to market their farm, food, and other products directly to consumers through encouraging the development of retail farm operations such as roadside stands and on-farm markets,” and is designed to “ensure that farmers who operate roadside stands and farm markets will have protection for their retail farm operations under the state’s right-to-farm laws.”