November 21, 2007
Southampton Town Board Divided Over Budget
"This is a sad day for Southampton Town."
So said Councilman Steve Kenny last Friday, after a special meeting called to vote to adopt Southampton Town's final 2008 operating budget morphed into an outright melee.
Shortly after the special meeting convened, the situation disintegrated into a standoff, with town board members taking sides and refusing to back down in a dramatic and contentious display that resulted in the town's budget being voted down 3-1.
Because the board voted against adoption of the 2008 preliminary budget, the town board ultimately voted against the adoption of the 2008 Budget in its present form. State law requires that the town board adopt the annual operating budget for the next year no later than November 20. In the event the town board does not adopt a resolution by that state-mandated deadline, the preliminary budget filed in the town clerk's office in early October as last amended by the town board through November 20, becomes the official budget by default.
Tensions were sparked when councilwoman Linda Kabot, who this week emerged victorious in the race for town supervisor, appeared with a packet of 22 walk-on resolutions that she hoped to present for review that would amend the budget and result in an increase in the proposed tax rate of 4.3 percent.
In his proposed 2008 budget, Heaney called for a zero percent increase in the town's property tax rate, which could be achieved, he explained, by utilizing the town's general fund surplus of $3.8 million.
Among Kabot's proposed walk-on resolutions were $1 million of "tax-relief through cost-cutting measures," $1 to $2 million toward affordable housing, and amending the preliminary budget to increase highway part-town road reconstruction by $500,000. She said that Heaney's "one-shot revenue of $500,000 (from the proposed sale of municipal property that presently serves as a highway barn in Westhampton) would reduce the Road Reconstruction Program tax levy supporting the debt service obligation for the year 2008."
Kabot also proposed abolishing the housing office so as to decrease the general fund for human services, including the town's youth bureau, by $20,000.
Heaney refused to allow Kabot to introduce her walk-on resolutions and said the special meeting had been set by him, the supervisor, and therefore, he had the right to determine the agenda.
According to town code, "The supervisor of any town may, and upon written request of two members of the board, shall, within 10 days, call a special meeting of the town board by giving at least two days' notice in writing to the members of the board of the time and place where the meeting is to be held."
Kabot accused Heaney of "obstructing the town board from making amendments" to the budget.
Heaney countered that he refused to "break faith" with his constituents after promising them a zero percent tax rate increase.
Kenny said he was "disappointed" in Heaney. "All of us are subject to the democratic process." Kenny said after the recent election, except for Board of Elections certification, Kabot was the new supervisor, who should be able to shape her own budget. "I just think this is bad form," he told Heaney. "It smacks of retribution – and resistance to the will of the people. There is a new sheriff in town."
Kenny added that Heaney should have stepped aside "gracefully." However, Kabot does not officially takeover as town supervisor until January 1, 2008.
After the meeting, Heaney had a message for Kabot and Kenny: "Shame on you both. I stood by [my] conviction because I am a man of honor and conviction. I was determined to keep my promise to freeze taxes for town taxpayers. The nerve of Mr. Kenny to suggest that in defeat, I should abdicate my responsibilities to our residents, by subordinating duty to do what is right to the will of a 'new sheriff,'" he said. "How ironic! Linda Kabot used the same moment to break her campaign promise to control spending to lower taxes, exposing herself as a fraud."
Also under dispute at Friday's meeting was a meeting proposed for yesterday. Kabot and Kenny suggested tabling the discussion until that day so that Councilwoman Nancy Graboski, who was away celebrating her wedding anniversary, could be present. Heaney reminded that he would not be in town that day and he had not been notified of the date.
Kabot countered that the board voted "unanimously" on a walk-on resolution she presented at last week's town board that scheduled the special meeting for the 20th.
Southampton Town Attorney Garret W. Swenson, Jr. pointed out that only a supervisor can set a special meeting and only the supervisor sets the agenda. Therefore, he said, the meeting would be "illegal" and no action could be taken.
Swenson said the meeting on the 20th is also not a noticed meeting.
"I find this to be obstruction," said Kabot.
"This is the law," stated Swenson. "I have deep concerns when elected officials are not following state law." He reinforced that Kabot does not have authority to call a special meeting of the town board.
On Sunday, Kabot issued a statement saying that the meeting would be held yesterday. "Together with the other town board members, we intend on moving these amendments forward and will convene on November 20 consistent with the unanimous vote on November 13 which was inclusive of the supervisor's affirmative vote," continued Kabot. "The town board has been thwarted by some ill-will of supervisor Heaney and divided loyalties of the town attorney, but ultimately we fully intend on getting the business of government done appropriately and cost-effectively. Supervisor Heaney has 'sour grapes' over the election this year and should not let his ego interfere with good governance by others."
She added that the town attorney is an appointee of the full town board.
Kabot also seeks to clarify terminology regarding the PILOT program. "We're in the middle of a legislative debate over terminology. What did the state mean when it said 'such lands'?" she asked. "Did the state expect PILOTS for school districts and sumps?" Instead, she said PILOTS should only be used for preservation.
"This is another effort to blithely ignore what state law says, favoring what Mrs. Kabot wants instead. The state law defines 'municipal' land as any wholly tax-exempt property owned by government," said Heaney. "Her resolution seeks to limit the definition of municipal land locally to those lands acquired for preservation. This is an attempt to restrict the amount of aid available to struggling school districts in Hampton Bays and the Flanders areas within the Riverhead School District."
After the meeting, Heaney commented: "It seems they can't wait to until December 31st to push me out the door. Their behavior was belligerent toward me and showed a disturbing disdain for the concerns of the general public." He added, of Kabot's statements, "This angry blather offers a glimpse of the future. Sad."