It was standing room only at the Southampton Town supervisors debate held last Thursday in the basement of the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, dozens of voters and a few local politicians crammed into the room to watch town supervisor candidates Anna Throne-Holst, currently a town council member, and sitting supervisor Linda Kabot duke out their positions. The historic nature of the 2009 elections — this is the first time two females are vying for the position — wasn’t mentioned during the evening, as the women focused on questions surrounding the town’s finances, privatizing waste management transfer stations and negotiating a contract with the PBA.
In an opening statement, Throne-Holst said her experiences in the non-profit sector prompted her to ask questions about the town’s finances when she was first elected to the council. Throne-Holst told the audience she had wanted to know why the town budgeted around previous deficits and what the “bottom line numbers” were for the capital fund. She said she later asked for monthly variance reports, which the town wasn’t in the practice of distributing.
“We began the unraveling of years of mismanagement,” said Throne-Holst.
For her opening remarks, Kabot said during her tenure as a councilwoman she was part of a “great team,” but claimed her colleagues practiced “political budgeting,” which she said she is against.
“When you are in a hole, you stop digging,” argued Kabot. “With my election, I defeated the incumbent who was the source [of the political budgeting].”
After uncovering the numerous accounting errors from previous years, Kabot said she charted a course of strategic financial management and terminated contracts with the auditors who claimed the town was financially sound from 2003 through 2007. Kabot reminded the audience that she made $2 million in budget cuts this year.
The candidates were then asked if they felt it was necessary to pierce the five percent tax rate cap in order to pay off past deficits. Kabot claimed the town doesn’t needed to puncture the tax cap for the operating budget but noted such a measure might be used to pay off debts in the capital fund.
“We still don’t know what it means to pierce that tax cap,” contended Throne-Holst. “I will not agree to do it without having a real deficit reduction plan in place.” Throne-Holst added that the board is waiting on the final tally for the capital fund deficit.
“Six years worth of accounting records needed to be reconciled,” countered Kabot.
“It should have come clear much sooner,” stated Throne-Holst, adding that she asked for the forensic audits and a complete overhaul of the town’s financial management.
In order to eliminate excess and control town spending, Throne-Holst has a 13-step plan of how to restructure the town which includes consolidating services and reorganizing departments.
Kabot countered that her plan was specific and evidenced in the 2010 tentative budget.
“We must do more with less,” decreed Kabot.
Kabot said the town must continue to look at ways to provide services in a more cost efficient manner to make up for declines in town revenues. Throne-Holst argued that the 2010 budget fails to bring about these changes.
The candidates further differed on town employee health benefit contributions. Kabot pointed out that civil service employees pay a portion of their families’ medical benefits, while police staff and elected officials do not. Kabot hoped health benefit contributions would be an option for the police staff as the town negotiations with the PBA are pending.
“It is necessary for all of us to work towards sharing in this pain,” remarked Kabot.
Throne-Holst countered that Kabot has the ability to tap into her husband’s health plan as he is a teacher at the Westhampton public school. As a single mother, Throne-Holst said she doesn’t have the same luxury.
Kabot, however, mentioned that her husband is required to contribute 15 percent into his family’s health plan and said it was “high time” for the town to ask for a similar contribution from all employees. She announced that town staff enjoy a family medical plan that costs roughly $17,000 annually per plan.
Throne-Holst noted that the town should explore tapping into Suffolk County’s medical plan which could be more cost effective.
While on the topic of the police force, Kabot added that Throne-Holst is endorsed by the PBA, who are asking for a 4.5 percent salary increase. Kabot maintained nearly 70 percent of the police staff earns over six figures a year.
Throne-Holst asserted that the stymied negotiations between the town and the PBA was on account of Kabot’s “inability to negotiate.”
“Our police unit does a good job. They are well compensated, but there is a national recession … and we asked to settle [with the PBA] at a 2.5 percent salary increase,” argued Kabot.
The idea of privatizing one or two of the town’s waste management transfer stations was widely debated. Throne-Holst was against the measure calling it a “classic knee jerk reaction” to tough fiscal times. She said residents value the choice of either a station or a private carter. She noted there needs to be better organizational management and the town should explore charging different fees. Throne-Holst said she believed the waste management division has never been properly accounted. She added the division historically failed to charge other town departments for handling their waste.
Kabot asserted the division is running at a $3 million deficit. She noted nearly 85 percent of households in the town use private trash haulers. Kabot added she is exploring closing the centers three days a week. Kabot contended that the Sag Harbor station wasn’t in jeopardy of privatization, as it is the most used facility in the town.
In her closing remarks, Kabot said when she ran in the last supervisor election her platform was based on cutting wasteful spending, tightening controls and creating greater accountability. Kabot added that she has a record of accomplishments, the ability to make difficult decisions and is passionate about her community.
In Throne-Holst’s final speech, she said the town was in need of a new approach and better results. Throne-Holst asserted that she has produced a real road map for the town’s future, in terms of reorganizing operations, creating strategic planning and producing a better service model.