State legislators are preparing to take another swing at mustering enough local support to grant the Southampton Town Trustees a separate tax line, giving them the authority to levy taxes and manage their own finances.
Similar legislation was proposed by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. La-Valle in 2019, but it was pulled when both the Trustees and Town Board found that they lacked unanimous support from their respective members, as the issue turned into a political football.
While last year’s effort was fumbled, it was not the first attempt to get the legislation passed in Albany. Nearly three years ago, the legislation gained support from the Town Board and Trustees. The bill was approved by the State Assembly, but time ran out for it to gain support in the State Senate.
Despite two failed attempts, Mr. LaValle and Mr. Thiele are getting ready to give it another go.
“We had a meeting about two weeks ago, and, basically, Senator LaValle’s point of view and my point of view, is … if there is bipartisan unanimous support from both the Trustees and the Town Board — if this is a non-controversial, non-political issue, and they all agree they want to move ahead — we’ll put the bill in,” Mr. Thiele said on Thursday, February 27. “They’ll have a draft of the bill, and we’ll wait to hear from them. If they want to move forward, we’ll put the bill in.”
In order to gain that support, both the Trustees and Town Board will need to pass a home rule message, a local resolution that shows support for the legislation.
That is where things went afoul in 2019.
Last year, Trustee Bill Pell told the Town Board that he would not support the idea of a separate tax line unless the specifics of the proposed annual budget were made clear.
As of today, those specifics have never been broken down.
On Thursday, Mr. Pell said not having that breakdown could potentially be a deal-breaker on whether he supports the legislation or not. At the same time, he said he would rather see legislation that strengthens the Trustees while also giving them the same authority that a fire district has when it comes to taxing and bonding.
“We want to get the authority to strengthen the Trustees. That’s more important,” he said. “Right now, the state really does not recognize us.”
During a Trustees work session on Wednesday, February 26, Trustee President Eric Shultz said that whatever is proposed, the public has to be comfortable with it.
Like Mr. Pell, he also said the Trustees should be treated the same as a fire district.
“I’ve said before that a little fire department in the Adirondacks, with a little pickup truck, has more bonding authority than the oldest board in the country,” Mr. Shultz said. “We have a lot more responsibilities. It’s just inconceivable, with all the experience that these legislators have, that they can’t find a way to come up with some sort of solution — whether it be an authority or just added language in the state that corporate body politics that have been recognized since the State Constitution was formed rise to the same level as other governments.”
Town Trustee Scott Horowitz has been a big proponent of getting a separate tax line for the Trustees. Doing so, he said, would provide transparency to the public, so it knows where their tax dollars are going.
The Trustees don’t have a tax line currently, and the town controls the board’s finances, providing several amenities — things like office space in Town Hall, the use of a town attorney, office supplies, staffing, financial services, and more.
Mr. Horowitz attended the meeting two weeks ago with Mr. Thiele, Mr. Shultz, Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Town Comptroller Leonard Marchese.
The way the legislation is being drafted, Mr. Horowitz said, the Trustees would be able to raise taxes by up to 2 percent each year, would be able to bond for additional funds with the Town Board, and could pierce the cap in emergency situations.
For example, if a severe storm comes through and wipes out the infrastructure that the Trustees rely on to operate, they would be permitted to pierce the cap.
The Trustees would also be able to pierce the cap if they ran out of money, Mr. Horowitz said, although he did not see any way that could be possible.
“It’s only in an extreme, extreme situation, but to have that available to the Trustees in an extreme situation is not a bad thing,” he said, adding that under the initial legislation, only the supervisor was needed to get bonding approval. Now, it requires the Town Board. “It does provide more transparency. It does provide stability for the Trustees, because right now, you have a handshake deal. You don’t know what you’re getting, when you’re getting it, or if there’s going to be a reduction in services. It’s a handshake deal.”
Under the current setup, the Town Board could decide to defund the Trustees — and that creates an uneasiness among them.
“They were created prior to the Town Board, but now they are completely subject to the whim of the Town Board,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “If the Town Board decides to defund them one year because they don’t like the policies or the direction the Trustees are going, the Trustees cease to exist.”
The goals of the Trustees do not always align with the Town Board, and the two bodies have, at times, found themselves at odds. A legal fight one day is theoretically possible.
“If they need to defend their position, I’m not going to fund them if it goes contrary to what the town wants,” Mr. Schneiderman added.
But that does not diminish the need to set up a tax line for the Trustees. In fact, the supervisor said it makes it even more critical, because it creates transparency so people can see what the Trustees cost, and it also provides sovereignty. It will also be cost neutral, he said, as the town would reduce the tax burden by an equal measure.
Town Board member Tommy John Schiavoni, who is currently making a run for Mr. LaValle’s seat on the State Senate, said the town is not looking to defund the Trustees in any way, but he has his concerns with how the Trustees could bond for money.
“The way they are created now, they do not have bonding authority, and they would need that,” he said. “If we had a separately elected body politic — that’s their official designation — they would theoretically be able to use the faith and credit of the people of the Town of Southampton to take loans. That is something that, as a Town Board member and someone who is assigned with the fiduciary responsibility of the town, that’s our responsibility.
“I certainly support the rights of the Trustees to have their own independent budget line. My thing is, how do they borrow under their current setup?” he added.
Mr. Thiele said once the draft legislation is provided to the Trustees and Town Board, he will wait to find out if they want to move forward. How the tax line is implemented will be up to those two boards.
If the legislation gets local support, Mr. LaValle and Mr. Thiele will have until June 3 to get approval at the state level.
“If they do want to move forward with the legislation, I’m optimistic we can get the legislation passed,” Mr. Thiele said. “If the town really wants to move forward with this, we’re going to need to hear from them, probably no later than the end of April.”