Trustees Tax Line Turmoil

Southampton Town Trustees President Ed Warner. Independent/Desirée Keegan
Southampton Town Trustees President Ed Warner. Independent/Desirée Keegan

The Southampton Town Trustees, who were once united, are now divided.

Back in 2016, trustees voted unanimously to have state Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele draft legislation to clarify their board’s rights as Trustees of the Freeholders and Commonalty of the Town of Southampton to protect the public’s easement on the ocean beaches in the town.

A second measure would approve a separate tax line for the trustees, giving them more control over their finances and allowing them to submit a budget to the town board each year similar to the way fire districts do.

At a March 18 meeting, the trustees were unanimous in backing the legislation that would affirm their rights under the Dongan Patent of 1686, which created the board of trustees to act as stewards for public underwater land, shores, and waterways. However, they were split 3-2 over the proposed budget line that was unanimously backed last year, with Trustees Bill Pell and Ann Welker voting against it. Welker said she “is absolutely in favor of this legislation,” but said she needed more information before proceeding.

President Ed Warner and Secretary and Treasurer Scott Horowitz, Republicans running for re-election, and maintenance manager Bruce Stafford, who withdrew his bid for re-election citing inner Conservative Party chaos, believe politics are playing a part in the dispute.

They say Andrew Brosnan, chairman of Surfrider Foundation’s Eastern Long Island Chapter, neglected to mention he is a Democratic candidate for the trustee board when he spoke with Pell about the budget issue at a town board meeting March 12.

Scott Horowitz. Independent/Desirée Keegan

“It’s being politicized when it’s a reassuring framework set up to protect everybody and provide more transparency,” Horowitz said. “We’re trustees of a trust of these lands. We have to protect and defend that trust with all of our might. Both our board and the town board have to recognize each one’s authority and autonomy, be respectful of each’s jurisdiction, and we need consistent, stable funding. It’s about doing the right thing for everybody.”

Stafford took issue with claims Pell made during the meeting when he spoke of distrust on the board, citing the purchase of a truck and alluding to it being a backdoor deal of sorts that also came with a $2000 upcharge. Stafford called it a “total lie.”

“He said he didn’t know anything about it, when in fact, he did,” Stafford said of the 4-1 vote to approve the purchase, for which Pell was the only opposing vote. “Also, the truck ended up costing $524.40 more than anticipated, not $2000.”

Stafford said he found it oddly coincidental that Pell, who ran for re-election in 2016 supporting the budget line like the rest of the board members, now seems to find problems with it. Horowitz agreed.

“We were working together, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on asking everyone to support us,” he said. “We need to work together for the trust, loyally. We took an oath to protect and defend the assets of this trust.”

Stafford added, “At the end of the day, this board needs its own tax line and the public needs to see how much. We felt it was in the best interest of the public, we were all working toward it, and now we’re shifting gears. All while the same threats are still there on our easement.”

He said if anyone were to address the town board on behalf of the trustees, it should have been the president.

“I think by us having our own tax line, 100 percent separate, things would run a lot smoother,” Stafford said. “Then we can actually plan projects. For us to turn around and take action on something, we have to go to the town board to have them fund it, because they manage the checkbook. The little Town of Southampton is no longer little, and it’s our easement on the ocean. If we lose that easement or something goes wrong, who do you think is coming out to Long Island anymore? Nobody.”

Welker said while she’s in favor of a tax line, she would like more information and an ultimate plan upfront before deciding.

“I’m concerned that our finances are very entangled with the town,” she said. “We need a breakdown of where everything would come from and where it would go.”

Warner said at the board’s March 18 meeting that he would like to discuss the matter with the town board in a work session. On Monday, the town board announced that it had scheduled just such a joint work session with the trustees for 1 PM on April 2.

Horowitz said that with a phase-in plan set to take effect if the measure is approved, a budget line wouldn’t even exist until 2021, so Pell’s point about the current board is moot. He said he sees this is a serious issue that affects the townspeople generationally.

“I take a lot of pride and am trying to work on serious issues that affect our community without politicizing things,” he said. “There needs to be a sustainable funding source for us to protect everybody.”

Stafford sees things similarly.

“I’m in it for the locals. I was born and raised here. I enjoy riding on a beach, I enjoy fishing on a beach, I enjoy going to the beach for a barbecue, and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose that for anybody,” he said. “This is a great place the live, to raise kids, and the ocean and the bays are very important to me. I’m trying to keep them clean. We try to do the right thing for the people.”

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