Two clear points of disagreement emerged from the nuts-and-bolts responses offered by East Hampton Town Board candidates David Lys and Manny Vilar in response to questions during a 90-minute debate sponsored by the East Hampton Group for Good Government and the East Hampton Library on Tuesday night.
Mr. Lys, the Democrat, and Mr. Vilar, a Republican, disagreed on the option of closing East Hampton Airport if the town’s efforts to control aircraft noise continue to fail. Mr. Lys favored keeping it on the table as a tool to provide leverage in negotiations with airport users; Mr. Vilar emphatically opposed it, saying the airport was too important an access point for emergencies to even threaten shutting it down.
They also disagreed on the town’s ability to reverse a gradual decline in ground and surface water quality across the region. Calling the pollution threat “an animal that is far outside the span of our control,” Mr. Vilar said reversing it would require “an astronomical amount of money,” perhaps $1 billion, and that “It’s not a problem that can be fixed over 20 years” by the town alone.
“I do disagree that we can’t get this done in 20 years,” said Mr. Lys. “I think we have to be extremely proactive and continue on with some of the initiatives the town has started right now.”
“So here’s the way you do it right now. You look at all departments, and you look at all different ways of doing it. You look at not just the larger scope projects. We can’t septic and sewer all of the Town of East Hampton” but “we can start looking at … locations and target a 10-year watershed groundwater” plan, said Mr. Lys. “Groundwater travels for 10 years. We can protect that groundwater and that septic water from getting into our bays and our estuaries, we should start trying to target where we should put … sewer treatment plants in; that might be done by purchasing through the CPF maybe larger tracts of land … and then potentially what happens is homeowner associations will be able to get their residents to hook up to that.”
The candidates generally agreed that town salaries are not competitive, which is causing high employee turnover and a potential exodus of middle management; that the town must reassess all its taxable properties before it is ordered to do so by the courts; that a way should be found to allow the Maidstone Gun Club to continue to lease airport property at an affordable rate after its current lease expires in 2023; and that the police department’s current policy to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) only in criminal matters in response to judicial warrants, and not administrative detainer warrants, is working and doesn’t need to be changed.
The goal for the evening, according to moderator Arthur Malman of the Group for Good Government, was to be “the kind of thing you might do with a friend at your kitchen table.” After each candidate gave a two-minute statement, Mr. Malman asked them three questions that had been disclosed ahead of the debate. The candidates alternated answering first. After the initial response, they were free to speak to each other and respond without time restrictions. Questions submitted by the audience followed.
The event was recorded by the Committee for Good Government and will be show on LTV, Channel 20 in East Hampton.
Mr. Vilar, who grew up in Springs and is a New York State Park Police first sergeant and founding president of the department’s PBA, was the first to answer the first question: “what would you do” if there was a mass exodus of code enforcement officers taking better paying jobs elsewhere.
“This is representative of East Hampton town government,” he said. “There’s a structural problem in their labor contracts that has been building over years and years and years. It’s not a short-term problem. It didn’t happen overnight. But it just happened through years of collective bargaining and negotiations, both in East Hampton and the surrounding municipalities.”
In 2017, the median salary for town employees was $40,500, he said, and “other towns earn 30 percent more. This is fixable. This is in my wheelhouse, it’s what I do” as a PBA leader. He said the town hasn’t conducted a “town-wide class and compensation evaluation review,” which he said should be done regularly to keep all its salaries competitive.
Fixing job titles and pay on the basis of individual employees doesn’t work because it causes “compression” that in effect reduces the standing of other workers, he said, and “it will take multiple years to get out of this.” Only through a class and compensation evaluation review process can the town be sure employees have a path to promotional opportunities, that the jobs titles and descriptions “are all in the right categories” and that “wages and benefits are comparable” to what’s available in surrounding communities.
Mr. Lys, a sitting town councilman who was appointed to the board in January, is also the son of an immigrant who grew up in East Hampton. He now runs several businesses with his wife, Rachel. His first response to an employee exodus “as a CEO” would be to work with the HR department to fill the jobs and “stop the bleeding” by “calling the roll” and hiring candidates from the Civil Service list, he said.
He’d also conduct exit interviews to determine why employees were leaving. “It might not be because of pay all the time,” he said. “It might be because of the commute … it might be internal strife.”
“Manny is more talking about the monetary and the salary,” Mr. Lys said. “The Town of East Hampton over the last two and a half years has actually regraded multiple, multiple positions, almost two dozen positions within the tier, that actually has given $171,000 of regrade salaries to about 20 positions over there.”
To “incentivize” employees within the union contract and the state’s 2-percent tax cap, the town can regrade pay, as it has done; it can also give “merit pay,” he said. “Merit pay is when your department head will come to you” offering praise and the Town Board grants a 10-percent raise “within their salary.”
The town should also “try to bring on board better education” of its departments. “The town right now is very top heavy with experience, said Mr. Lys. We need to be ready for a mass turnover, not just from the lower ranks but from the $80,000 to $90,000 jobs “that have a wealth of institutional knowledge,” he said.
In the effort to have a “succession plan,” the town also should make sure other departments can step in and perform the same job roles, he said.
“I think what’s happening here right now, we saw this in the building department, four or five years ago, about three building inspectors that turned over quickly,” said Mr. Lys. Those people were hired off the Civil Service list and had long commutes. “What ended up happening within the building department was a lot of minutia; it slowed down to molasses and that’s very frustrating with the hundreds of applications they see coming through there in a week.”
The town is now running a “Live Here, Work Here” program, he added, which focuses on local high school graduates “who live here and would love to work for the town … We need to try to fill our ranks from within and the building department and the ordinance department have been successful.”
After Mr. Malman noted that a town employee earning an average salary could not afford the mortgage for a house, Mr. Vilar agreed and added, “David is right. East Hampton is facing a huge turnover. We’ve lost a lot of our middle managers.” He said there’s no “easy fix” short of class and compensation evaluation review.
On the question of the Maidstone Gun Club’s $100 a year lease for 95 acres of airport land — far below the fair market value required for airport lands by the FAA — Mr. Lys praised the club as a recreational resource for local residents as well as a training facility for the police and Coast Guard. He suggested subdividing the property to exclude a cell tower and other acreage there so the club would be charged only for the 28 acres it actually uses. The town should “negotiate. Only after [FAA] grant assurances expire” in 2021 when there will be “more local control in deciding” what’s allowed on the property.
Mr. Vilar said he was “in total agreement” with Mr. Lys.
“David gets an A-plus,” commented Mr. Malman, and “Manny gets an A-plus-plus for not trying to outdo him.”
On the third question — “what do you do” about a young family in a new house assessed at $600,000 paying far more in taxes than the owner of an old house that sold recently for $6 million — Mr. Vilar said, “We have to address reassessment on a human level.” He noted that middle-class people in Springs pay much higher school taxes because their assessed values are relatively low compared to the multi-million-dollar houses in East Hampton and yet they are in the same zip code so do not receive state funding appropriate to their local property values.
“The first step” toward addressing assessment inequities, he said, is for the assessor’s office to find out “what is and isn’t assessed properly.” Noting that the town has never conducted a town-wide reassessment, he added, “Sometime, you’re going to have to bite the bullet.” The town should “figure out now” how to go about it instead of waiting for a lawsuit and having to do it “under strict mandate.” He said reassessment was “imminent and we should be prepared” and “it’s something we should do.”
“I would support young families’ process through legal means and wait for the courts to see what will be adjudicated,” Mr. Lys said, referring to the young people with the newly assessed $600,000 house, “but I don’t think that’s the proper venue for them to start.” First, they should grieve their assessment before the board of assessment review then proceed to small claims assessment review.
He said reassessment of the town’s 247,000 taxable properties will cost $4 to $5 million to conduct and it can’t be done selectivity with a focus on any particular properties. He suggested that the town hire “a very good PR firm” to explain the process “because some people will be very concerned” about “spending $5 million to get a higher tax bill.” Also, an outside firm should conduct the reassessment, he added, and the town should ask the state to allow the new values to be phased in over six years to soften the impact.
Meanwhile, the town should study its tax base “to see how many properties are under-assessed” because the question is not if, but when, reassessment is coming.
In response to a question from Mr. Malman, Mr. Lys said he would favor a study of the town’s tax base even if it cost $100,000. The town “needs to get ahead of it instead of being forced to do it,” he said.