Come January 1, a familiar face will be missing from the East Hampton Town Planning Department office. Thomas Talmage, who has served as East Hampton Town’s engineer for 18 years, will no longer be employed by the town. He is not retiring — his job has simply been written out of the budget.
On October 15, Councilman David Lys addressed the matter, as board members heard from Len Bernard about the tentative budget for the new year.
“I think it is important to try and maintain the position of town engineer in the town right now to have one to interface” with the public, Lys said. He said the public needs someone at the planning department level to discuss engineering issues on various projects.
Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc responded, “We provide in the budget for a person to do the oversight of town capital projects.” He told Lys that the town was adding a planner in lieu of retaining an in-house engineer.
“You’re adding a fulltime planning position?” Bernard reaffirmed.
Lys said it is important to “have a licensed engineer on staff to answer the questions that only a licensed engineer can answer.” He said the town has been trying this year to hire a fulltime qualified planner, and that it has been difficult to find a candidate willing to make the daily trek to East Hampton. Talmage is a lifetime resident whose name is synonymous with historic East Hampton, where streets bear his family name.
“The decision is up to the board,” Bernard responded. “The way the budget is now structured,” he said, the money is not there to fund Talmage’s position.
Board member Kathee Burke-Gonzalez searched for a possible funding stream, asking about the $47,000 earmarked for the town’s solar energy project. “I thought that it was grant funded,” she said. Van Scoyoc explained that the project, called “Solarizing,” was only partly funded by grants.
Councilman Jeff Bragman said that, while he was “glad to see another planner, I agree there are some things planners are not qualified to look at.”
“We have been outsourcing it all for exactly that reason,” said Van Scoyoc.
Bernard took the question to the bottom line. The only way to finance the town engineer’s position was for the board to dip into the town’s surplus savings.
The board moved on to other matters October 15.
Two days later, during the public portion of the board’s October 17 meeting, local contractor Chris Tucci opposed the board’s elimination of the town engineer position. “He is objective. He is fair. He is diligent. He is honest,” said Tucci. He also questioned whether the town could eliminate a civil service position simply through the budget process, saying that Talmage was “tenured.”
Van Scoyoc responded, “For the many years I have been on the town board, the town has outsourced nearly all of the engineering. It gets harder and harder to justify having a town engineer that is not doing the engineering.”
On Thursday night, November 7, a public hearing was held on the budget. Only one member of the public spoke. David Buda, a frequent critic of the town government, expressed deep concern over the elimination of the position, and its unforeseen potential consequences.
The budget, which must be ratified within the next couple of weeks, still calls for the elimination of the town engineer position.
The Independent spoke with Talmage on November 8. “I don’t understand why they are doing it. I think it is a mistake for the town,” he said. “I don’t know what to think. This is unprecedented.” For many years, he and Drew Bennett were the two homegrown certified, licensed engineers in the town, something Talmage took pride in, he said.
Talmage said that he will use the remaining time at his post to prepare his office for whatever direction the town ultimately goes in.
The Town of East Hampton has spent over $229,000, year-to-date, on an outside engineering and surveying firm, LK McClean & Associates, according to town records.