August 23, 2006

China Trip Sparks Discord Over Debt

By Lisa Finn

An invitation extended to Greenport Village Mayor David Kapell to participate in an international symposium on development of small and medium-sized cities in China has got some residents seeing red.

A number of disgruntled taxpayers at last week's village board meeting questioned whether they should foot the bill for the mayor's travel expenses when, they claim, Greenport is already strapped with debt.

But Kapell and the village board begged to differ and pointed out, in recent months, Greenport has paid back a substantial amount of funds owed and is right on schedule in regard to repayment of debt accrued during construction of Mitchell Park.

Kapell announced at the village board's work session on August 10 that he had received an invitation to attend a symposium in Tai'an City in the Shandong Province of the Peoples Republic of China, sponsored by the Provincial People's Government of Shandong & The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Peoples Republic of China from September 22-25.

Kapell would be a member of a Suffolk County delegation invited through the county's membership in the International Economic Development Council.

Although conference hosts will pay for lodging, meals and transportation, attendees are responsible for roundtrip airfare to Tai'an City.

After discussing the invitation at their monthly work session, the board voted last Thursday to authorize Kapell to attend the conference and allocated funds for expenses, not to exceed $3000.

Resident David Nyce voiced concerns that the village is in debt. "Is it necessary to spend $3000 to send the mayor to China?" he asked. "I don't think taxpayer money should be used for that."

Resident Jennifer Benton suggested rather than traveling to China, the mayor and the board look to communities in the United States that have "successfully handled" issues such as affordable housing, density and preservation of open space.

Greenport Village Trustee Jamie Mills said while on the surface, the public perception has often been one of politicians going on junkets using taxpayers' money, "in this case, I don't feel you're dealing with that situation."

The conference will be attended by an international representation of over 200 attendees including mayors and other chief elected officials, business people, specialists and scholars.

Mills recalled that the board voted to send Kapell to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "I was skeptical at first, but I supported it," he said, pointing out that, ultimately, the decision was a good one for the village. "The benefit to the village was a big one. This may sound like an exotic trip, but it's a business trip, and the mayor will come back with new ideas."

Trustees Ben Burns, Valerie Shelby and George Hubbard also voiced support.

Kapell, an avid fisherman, compared the learning experience to a fishing excursion. "If you don't go, you won't know," he said.

Mills added naysayers who "spouted off" in regard to village debt "should investigate the numbers," pointing out millions of dollars in debt have been paid recently. Kapell said the village is on schedule with its debt repayment and, when the remaining grants are paid and the sale of Clark's Beach complete, Mitchell Park and Marina "will be completely bought and paid for with no increase in village taxes, which remain 60% lower than they were when the project was initiated in 1994."

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