Local Politics: EH Leaves

Just two years back the then-East Hampton Supervisor and the Democrat-controlled Town Board passed a public beach pass fee ordinance for town residents. Local Republican Board candidates Theresa K. Quigley and Dominic Stanzione, along with Supervisor candidate Bill Wilkinson, all joined a chorus of anger over the beach pass fees and swore there would be no beach pass fees for town residents if they won. The groundswell against the beach fees was so loud and vibrant that the Town Board actually rescinded the fees before the election, perhaps in attempt to prevent a landslide victory of Republican candidates that eventually happened anyway.

Now, no sane person who knew the issues of that election cycle would ever say that the contention over beach fees cost the Democrats control of the town—bad management did, though beach fees hit a chord for residents, and people attended board meetings in feverish pitched opposition. At that time, the departing-via-resignation Supervisor McGintee said to me in his office—just days before he was forced out—“Where will they get the $300,000-plus to replace what the fees will bring in?” His answer seems to have come this year. [expand]

The Town Board did away with town leaf collection and instead told residents of the town to pay for their own leaf pick-ups. In the world of the bizarre the Democrats running for East Hampton Town Board are now using this issue in hopes of galvanizing some sort of momentum to sway the next town election this November. The strange thing is that more town households used the leaf pick-up than beach passes, so guess what? The net for the town surpasses the $300,000 beach fees could have fetched, saving the town around $800,000. Back in Political Science at George Washington University, Professor Purcell called this a “cross-cutting cleavage,” or a clever political maneuver.

Zachary Cohen, the Democratic candidate for Town Supervisor, along with Democratic candidates for Town Board Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, announced in a press release last week that they came to the conclusion that the leaf policy is a fee or a “stealth tax” (their words) after conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the East Hampton Highway Department’s past leaf pick-up program and studying the effects of wiping it out. Their findings concluded that eliminating the leaf pick-up program saved about $14 in taxes for a resident yet cost the resident so much more because, for one thing, pick-ups are not done in a cost-saving uniform way. In fact, what they didn’t say was that the cost to the individual resident is more than the $30 resident beach pass fee is. Perhaps no one is ever going back to that unpopular issue. Yet the leaf pick-up costing more doesn’t seem as poignant an issue YET to residents as free beach parking was back then. The Democrat-sponsored report concludes that, “Leaf pick-up is an example of government providing a service less expensively and more efficiently than the private sector. One reason is that the Highway Department can organize the pickup so that all the leaves on a street are picked up on the same day. This is more efficient that having a dozen homeowners calling a dozen different landscapers.”

Now, in the age of reduced government services, revenues and possible state-enforced Town real estate tax caps at 2% on the immediate horizon, lots of changes in New York towns are forthcoming. Make no mistake about it, East Hampton Supervisor Wilkinson and his aide Len Bernard have the Town’s once out-of-control finances in line. They may even have a surplus or enough money to reduce taxes two years in a row. But a Town homeowner must calculate, is it wiser to pay $14 less in town taxes to pay $40 upwards at home to have their leaves removed? Is that smart to their pocketbooks? Is that good management on their part to let the town do that, pass that cost on to them? I think the leaf policy is again going to change; it’s the smart thing to do.

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