Airport Bills Are Over Budget, Democrats Say

Tapping surplus ‘by design,’ Overby alleges

    The East Hampton Town Board’s two Democratic members balked last Thursday at approving the payment of consultants’ bills for work related to the East Hampton Airport, saying that the bills had not been authorized by the entire town board, nor had they seen the work.

    Councilwoman Sylvia Overby and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc voted against a resolution offered by Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the board’s airport liaison, calling for payment totaling $56,319 to DY Consultants for work on an airport security plan, an airport layout plan drawing, a plan for the removal of obstructions (trees) within the airport landing and takeoff area, and the first phase of work documenting airport noise, which could lead to airport use restrictions.

    Both also voted no on a resolution to pay the same consultants an additional $80,000 to design an airport perimeter fence, for which the board had sought Federal Aviation Administration funding, and Mr. Van Scoyoc voted against scheduling a Nov. 21 hearing on a five-year airport capital improvement plan.

    A total of $945,000 was included in this year’s airport budget for legal fees, consultants, and contracts with other professionals. On Oct. 3, the board majority, over Ms. Overby’s objection, moved $165,000 from an airport surplus fund to pay for services beyond what had been budgeted.

    Both Ms. Overby and Mr. Van Scoyoc suggested this week that the cost overruns could be part of a deliberate strategy to force the town’s hand on airport management decisions, a topic of continued controversy among many residents. Some want East Hampton to stop taking F.A.A. money for the airport, in the hope that the town could then impose local noise-control restrictions, while others see no need to have taxpayers foot the airport bill and believe that what is really afoot is a movement to close down the facility.

     “We’re bankrupting the airport, and that might be by design,” Ms. Overby said on Tuesday.

    Questions about airport-related bills prompted the board last month to enact a policy whereby the town Finance Department audits all such bills, with charges and completed work checked against the terms of the consultants’ contracts.

    In a Sept. 17 briefing to the board, Charlene Kagel, a town accountant, said that some work performed by consultants, for which payment was being sought, was outside the scope of what had been specifically approved by the full town board.

    Other agreements, she said, were vague and did not list, for instance, a maximum cap on the eventual charges.

    “There are certain things getting done there that I don’t think the board would necessarily agree to have done, and we’re getting billed for it,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said during that discussion.

    “Somebody from this town has to have said go ahead,” Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said. “That work was being done at the request of people in this town that the town board didn’t know about. And that is a complete abuse of the way the town should operate . . . the reality is that DY did work; we right here, right now, do not know the basis on which they acted.”

    “This particular policy requires that what you describe never happens,” Len Bernard, the budget officer, said of the new procedures.

    The board has repeatedly questioned Mr. Stanzione in his capacity as airport liaison, with Ms. Quigley in particular levying charges that he has acted on airport matters without discussion with, or authority of, the board.

    Mr. Stanzione conceded last summer that he had worked with Jim Brundige, the airport manager, to shift suggested helicopter approach and takeoff routes without first discussing it with the board, but has contended recently that the scope of all of the consultants’ work has been under the aegis of board-approved projects.

    Both Ms. Overby and Mr. Van Scoyoc contended that the work listed on the recent $56,000 DY Consultants invoice was not fully authorized by the board.

    “Approving projects after the fact is really a bad way to do business with taxpayer money,” Ms. Overby said.

    “Some of this work has been done, you might as well call it, in private,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said Tuesday. “As a town board member, I haven’t seen anything.”

    “Has that work product been presented to the board?” he asked of the “airport use restriction plan, phase one.” “When are we going to see it?”    

    Kathleen Cunningham, who heads the Quiet Skies Coalition, a civic group, has asked for the initial report at several recent board meetings. The consultants gave a presentation to the board, Mr. Stanzione told her. “I’m sure it’s on video . . . I’m sure there’s some paperwork associated with it.”

    “These are policy issues, and money’s being expended, and who authorized the funds to be released? We basically blew the budget by well over $100,000. Where was the fiscal responsibility?” Mr. Van Scoyoc asked.    

    Last month Mr. Bernard said that $96,000 had been spent of a total $100,000 budget this year for Peter Kirsch’s fees, with a $56,000 bill still outstanding. The attorney is paid $440 an hour.

     “This is politics,” Mr. Stanzione said last Thursday, about the two Democrats’ “no” votes.

    “No, this is money,” said Ms. Overby.    

    “This is real money, and it’s real money spent without the board knowing about it,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

    “I’m very concerned that we funded a project that is not in the budget and does not follow the recently enacted town policy,” Ms. Overby said Tuesday.

    Depleting the airport fund surplus, she said, could limit the town’s options regarding accepting or declining new F.A.A. grants, which could affect the degree of local control over the airport.

    At the end of last year, Mr. Bernard told the town board last month, the airport fund had a surplus of $1.4 million. The year-end projection for 2013, he said, is that this year’s airport operating budget would be overspent by $300,000.

    Ms. Overby said she had no settled opinion yet as to whether the town should accept additional F.A.A. grants, as “we have had no [economic] analysis of whether the airport could be self-sustaining.” But, she said of accepting the federal dollars, “Don’t back me into a corner and make me have to do it.” The airport spending, she said, “just reeks of something, as if they’re backing us into a corner.”

    She  is concerned, she said, not only with the board’s oversight of the work being done by outside hires, but also with some of the particular charges — a $195 dinner, for example, on a bill submitted by Mr. Kirsch, the town’s aviation attorney, which took place during a trip by Councilman Stanzione to Washington, D.C., on the town’s dime. When the bills were audited by the town’s finance department, she said, reimbursement for some expenditures was denied.

    Airport-related charges approved this year included a $103,632 continuing contract with Exelis,  a company that provides an aircraft tracking system called AirScene, used to bill landing fees and to develop noise data, and a $70,201 increase in the fees paid to Robinson Aviation for operating a seasonal control tower last year, bringing that cost to a total of $412,801.