December 12, 2007
Lame Duck Deb Ruffles Feathers
Councilwoman Deb Foster is like a stormy March. She's going out like a lion, not like a lamb. The retiring councilwoman fueled verbal furor among members of the East Hampton Town Board, and especially Supervisor Bill McGintee during a December 4 work session, when she picked the scab of what's become a political sore – the use of Community Preservation Fund money to balance the adopted 2008 budget.
By law, only 10 percent of CPF money dedicated for the purchase of open space and farmland may be used for administrative costs associated with acquisitions. Other municipalities use far less than the full 10 percent. McGintee created campaign fodder for opponents this fall when his budget depicted the full percentage as revenue without listing corresponding expenditures. The supervisor promised to present a full accounting to justify the strategy. He did so at the eleventh hour, just before the board was due, by law, to adopt the budget. At the behest of Councilman Pete Hammerle, McGintee agreed to shave $500,000 from the proposed $2.5 million he used as revenue.
Last week, Foster resurrected the issue and raised McGintee's ire, reporting that she'd run the numbers herself and they don't add up.
"It doesn't balance," the councilwoman said several times during the heated discussion. And it doesn't balance by $1.2 million according to Foster's calculations.
The councilwoman made clear that she supports the notion of making sure CPF-related expenses are covered by CPF money. "I just want to see the numbers," she said.
"That's my job," McGintee repeated, growing increasingly irate. "My name is on this, too," Foster retorted. Simple accounting requires that revenue and expenditure sides of a budget balance out. The adopted budget for 2008 does not show how the CPF revenue McGintee claims is needed to cover management costs will be utilized. On the day of the vote, he presented a listing to justify the measure. Foster compiled her own listing and learned of the discrepancy. Each time he mentioned a cost during the work session discussion, Foster said, "I have that."
The supervisor has not wavered in defense of the concept of using CPF money to pay for such costs as portions of the salaries of many employees he says devote time to managing and overseeing CPF lands. The most recent accounting even notes police department personnel who patrol open space as a management expenditure. While McGintee dismissed accusations of misusing the money during the campaign, he claimed during the work session that he had met with a representative from the State Attorney General's office in order to garner a formal opinion on the measure.
Foster said she was glad to hear McGintee was seeking the opinion. She'd be happy if she could just see the numbers that prove the supervisor's point. "You can see all you want," he replied. "The budget is set, nothing's changing."
"I'm telling my board of a potential shortfall," Foster replied. When McGintee accused her of showboating, and noted there was ample time to discuss the issue before the budget was passed, Foster said, "Believe me, I'm not happy about this. I'm telling my other board members to keep track of this because I don't think any of you have seen where the $2.5 million goes."
If the town does not use all the CPF money budgeted for expenses, officials will be left with a gap. The money cannot be used for any other costs in the operating budget. "You'll have to make the budget balance one way or another," Town Attorney Laura Molinari advised. "You can't use CPF money for non-CPF expenses, period."
"I know there's a lot of people who have concerns . . . if we're throwing $2 million at management and stewardship, that's $2 million we don't have for the purchase of open space. They're all entitled to their opinion, but our job is to make sure this program is administered in a balanced fashion," McGintee said, addressing another aspect of the issue.
"I understand that," Foster continued, stating she was sure that next year all the expenditures will be articulated. "But right now, I don't see any place in the budget that this is balanced."
Southampton Town spends less than one percent of its CPF money to administer the funds, about 24 times less than East Hampton. Southold spends about one percent, 20 times less. Riverhead Town spends about two percent, or 10 percent less than East Hampton.
"I'm tired of going through this process," McGintee said, raising his voice and reaching over to write on papers Foster had on the table in front of her. "Hey, hey, hey, relax," Foster said. Referencing the moment Monday, Foster said, "I thought he was going to attack me."
"I don't know why you're so defensive, we're just trying to understand the process," Councilman Pete Hammerle muttered.
Not only did McGintee maintain that it is his responsibility to run the numbers, but he made another statement that appeared to startle his one time running mate. He's not going to wait until next year's budget to begin using CPF money for operating expenses. At the end of this year he plans to backfill the 2007 budget with CPF money to cover what he claims are CPF expenses. There's nothing in the law that says he can't, he told the board.
"That's a bit much," Hammerle opined.
"That's your opinion," McGintee snapped, "But I'm the one that's responsible."
"We all voted for this," Foster continued.
"And you all said 'yes,'" the supervisor retorted.
Hammerle is not in favor of "raiding" the CPF for use this year, if the expenses were not shown in the 2007 budget. "Then vote 'no,'" McGintee replied. When the councilman expressed reservations about modifying an adopted budget, the supervisor said it wouldn't be a change. It would merely mean transferring money from one fund to another.
As tempers flared, Councilwoman Pat Mansir broke in noting the measure is a new one and necessary. In fact, she declared, "Until I feel comfortable that we can maintain our properties and maintain our structures, I'm not going to buy any more."
"You're just spinning your wheels," the supervisor said to Foster as the discussion wore on. He assured the figures would balance and that a full analysis would be available. "My job will be to figure it out. Your job, for the next three weeks will be to enjoy whatever it is you're doing."