Bid to Give Town Trustees Their Own Line on Tax Bills Falters in Albany Gridlock

Photo courtesy of the Town of Southampton

The push for the Southampton Town Trustees to have their own line on town property tax bills hit a wall in Albany last week.

Favored by trustees so they won’t have to rely on the Southampton Town Board for much of their funding, the proposal needed “home rule” authority from the state legislature to allow town residents to vote on the question in November.

A bill passed the Assembly, 143-0, on June 20, the last day of the legislative session, but the Senate deadlocked on other issues, 31 Republican votes to 31 Democratic votes, and never brought it up for a vote.

The Southampton Town Board supported the home rule bill, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle. It would allow Southampton Town voters to decide whether or not to create a special town-wide tax district dedicated to funding the Trustees. Proponents say it would not increase anyone’s overall tax bill.

The news surfaced Monday night at the monthly meeting of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee. Its chairman, Pamela Harwood, unaware of what had happened in Albany, reported that she and two other members had attended a League of Women Voters of the Hamptons program on June 11 at the Hampton Library featuring trustee representatives from both Southampton and East Hampton towns.

“I was disappointed,” said Ms. Harwood. “I thought I was going to hear about water quality. It turned out to be a political stump speech to let everyone know they need money. It was really a campaign stop” in support of the proposal for the Southampton Trustees to have their own tax district and line on tax bills.

Dating back to colonial times, when they were established by royal patent, the trustees in each town manage waterways and wetlands within town boundaries and some upland properties including ancient trustee roads. They are elected independently.

Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, the CAC’s liaison to the town board, attended the session. He commented, “I support the tax line for the Trustees. I think it’s an interesting concept” and they have been waiting for it “a long time.” As it is, he said, the Trustees are treated like a town department even though they are not under the control of the Town Board — except when it comes to determining their share of the annual town budget.

He went on to explain that the required home rule bill had passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate so there would be no local vote on the issue this year. But the idea has been percolating for years, noted CAC member Nancy Walter-Yverts, so “there will be more to come at some point,” as Ms. Harwood put it.

Mr. Schiavoni explained that the Trustees collect fees from “enterprise funds” such as shellfishing and mooring permits, but most of their revenue comes from the town’s general fund and they “have to come to the town” to support their own budget. He said the Trustees stopped selling sand for revenue two years ago — despite allegations to the contrary in a pending lawsuit —after they cut channels in the beach to let out Mecox Bay.

Also at the CAC meeting Monday, Mr. Schiavoni reported that the installation by the town’s Parks Department of new, brighter LED street lighting in the Bridgehampton business district was nearly complete. Due to be complete by the end of June, the LED lighting project will extend from the Bridgehampton Commons shopping center to the Bridgehampton School, increasing the total number of lights from 19 to 37. Work remained to be done around the monument at Ocean Road and Montauk Highway, Mr. Schiavoni said.

In other news, CAC member Walter R. Miller, president of the board of trustees of the Bridgehampton Museum, reported at the meeting that construction work had begun Monday on the long-planned multi-million-dollar restoration of the museum’s Nathaniel Rogers House at the southeast corner of Montauk Highway and Ocean Road.

Built about 1824 and remodeled around 1840 by Nathaniel Rogers, a prominent society painter, the house was acquired by the Town of Southampton for preservation in 2003. It will be a museum with gift shop and research facilities on the first floor with administrative offices for the Bridgehampton Museum, formerly the Bridgehampton Historical Society, on the second floor.