From the Community Preservation Fund to promoting sustainable energy, the Southampton Town candidates for town council — Bridget Fleming, Sally Pope, Jim Malone and Chris Nuzzi — fielded a wide range of questions during the debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons at the Rogers Memorial Library last Thursday, October 22.
The candidates kicked off the debate with a few opening remarks highlighting their professional experience. Malone spoke of his background in finance, government and law. He is currently the chief fiscal director for the Suffolk County Clerk’s Office. Fleming highlighted her previous work as an assistant district attorney in New York County. She also pointed out that the town’s budget has almost doubled from 2001 through 2008, but asked the audience if they received double the services. Pope talked about her background as a lawyer, her extensive experience as a mediator and her work on the current town board. Nuzzi asserted that he is known as an independent thinker and highlighted a few of his initiatives on the town board. He said he proposed the hiring freeze for 2009, advocated burial of the new Long Island Power Authority line and put together the town’s business advisory council.
One of the first questions posed to the candidates was how the town should improve efforts to promote sustainability. Malone suggested the town enact a program where homeowners are lent money to retrofit their homes with green technology. The repayment of the loan, added Malone, would be less than their energy costs savings. Pope believed the town needed better public education regarding recycling and other green programs.
Nuzzi said it is imperative to create emotional incentives to move this effort forward. He proposed expanding and increasing the local rebate for solar energy systems, and expediting the review of such projects. Nuzzi also suggested decreasing the assessed value of homes with sustainable technology to lessen the tax bill. Fleming asserted that the town was on the cutting edge of recycling and the green movement in the 1970s and once again needs to be a model to other towns.
The candidates were then asked their opinion on privatizing some of the town’s waste management transfer stations. Fleming was against the plan and noted that the Waste Management Division wasn’t fully funded for the last six months of 2009. Based on the partial budgeting of the waste management division in 2009, Pope said there was an assumption of privatization. She, however, would like the town to improve and expand operations, suggesting the division provide a door-to-door service for trash hauling. Nuzzi said the division has made great strides in balancing their budget, including separating out expenses and implementing charge-backs for other town department waste. Malone argued the immediate deficit should be forgiven, but added the town should enhance public awareness of the services like recycling.
The candidates were asked if — given the declining revenue in the Community Preservation Fund — land preservation should be put on the back burner. Malone noted that in 2007 the fund was earning nearly a million per week, but said this year the fund will be lucky to bring in $20 million. He added that the fund’s debt obligation is around $10 million a year and suggested the town set up a reserve account for these payments. Nuzzi countered that the board has already established a reserve fund for debt service and is handling the decreases in revenues. He said the town set aside monies for agricultural PDDs (Planned Development Districts) and PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) payments. Fleming said it was essential to explore partnerships in preserving land and pointed out that open spaces are less expensive in today’s real estate market.
“There are too many pieces of property that are in need of preservation,” added Pope, saying preserved land is imperative to the economic health of the community.
A fair number of questions pertained to various fiscal troubles facing the town. Of pending arbitration with the PBA, Fleming blamed a lack of “productive negotiations.” Fleming said she would call upon her experience as an assistant district attorney in New York City to work with the PBA and would incorporate some of their cost saving ideas. Pope pointed out that a potential settlement from the arbitration hasn’t been included in the 2010 budget, and added that this has been an historic budgetary planning error for the town for many years. Nuzzi agreed, saying the eventual award must be budgeted for. He added that a deficit reduction plan has been in place over the last two years to pay off the police fund deficit. Malone estimated the town would settle for a three percent salary increase with the PBA.
Considering the increases in local unemployment, the candidates were asked what they would do to create job growth in the town. Pope noted the town’s main economic engine is tourism and said the town should create an environment for this industry to thrive by encouraging bed and breakfasts and fishing. Nuzzi argued that the town must look beyond tourism and real estate for employment ideas. He supported the Gabreski Airport project. Nuzzi said the town should promote jobs in the alternative energy, motion picture and homeland security industries. Malone noted that historic economic growth on the East End has stemmed from the building and hospitality trades. He would like to see the farming and fishing industry reinvigorated. Fleming suggested the town implement a first source hiring program to promote local contractors. She said perhaps extra fees can be charged to contracting companies from outside of the town. Fleming added that further partnerships need to be made with the business community.
The evening was rounded out with closing remarks by the candidates, each advocating for residents to cast their vote in favor of them on election day, November 3.