The Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund (CPF), which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, has continued to be a focus in Albany. As the New York State Comptroller continues to hammer away at its audit of the fund in the five East End towns, the state legislature has just received final legislative approval to tighten the reins with fiscal oversight reforms.
Last week, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and Assemblyman Marc Alessi announced the approval, which they say increases fiscal oversight, accountability, control and according to Thiele, most importantly, transparency over the CPF.
Ten years ago voters in the five East End towns – East Hampton, Southampton, Southold, Shelter Island and Riverhead – approved a two percent real estate transfer tax that provides the five municipalities with a fund to purchase and preserve open space, farmland, recreation and parkland sites as well as historic structures. The fund also allows for monies to be spent for stewardship and management of those parcels, and it is the language around that aspect of the law that is the focus of the new legislation.
“It really does a couple of things,” said Thiele on Tuesday. “First it increases transparency because it will require for stewardship and management that a plan be submitted that is subject to a public hearing. It also requires an annual audit of the fund, which must be available to the public, in each town, which leads to an increased transparency and accountability.”
Secondly, said Thiele, the reforms provide a clarification of what stewardship and management can entail.
“I think what was intended for stewardship and ordinary management was unclear,” said Thiele. “It is not cutting the grass at the park or painting the inside of a building.”
Thiele explained restoration and rehabilitation is allowed — in particular with historic structures — but routine maintenance is not.
“It was never intended to be used in that capacity,” he said.
Specifically, the legislation, which has been approved in all five towns and is awaiting the governor’s signature, requires each town to establish a management and stewardship plan for lands acquired through CPF which must be approved by a local law. CPF monies can only be spent for projects included in the plan, which can detail a three-year period of projects and must include project descriptions and estimated costs.
Eligible projects include those that “protect or enhance the natural, scenic, and open character of the land,” and accessory structures that “promote public access such as trails, boardwalks, bicycle paths, and parking areas.” The restoration of a property to its natural state, even it that includes the demolition of a structure, is also allowed. For buildings specifically purchased under the tenant of historic preservation, restoration and rehabilitation is allowed only, and expenses related to operation and maintenance of the building cannot be drawn from the CPF.
Towns do have the right, under the proposal, to enter into inter-municipal agreements to jointly acquire land or a structure through CPF, if it is a regional benefit, or to hire someone to perform independent audits for each town fund – an annual requirement under the fiscal measures. The audit must be performed by an independent certified public accountant and each year must be submitted to the New York State Comptroller.
While towns may still hire employees and independent contractors to handle CPF, according to the legislation, those salaries may only be taken care of by the fund if those employees are specifically working with CPF. Those costs are also subject to audit, said Thiele. Elected officials cannot draw any portion of their salary through CPF.
The State Comptroller’s Office is currently conducting its own audit of each of the five towns’ CPF, and according to Thiele, the findings should be available by the end of the year. Thiele said information on the five towns CPF will be released in one document.Â