Southampton Town candidates talk school taxes and more

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Southampton candidates (from left) Bridget Fleming, Brad Bender, Bill Hughes and Christine Scalera on Wednesday night.

Fixing the area’s tax problems, attracting new commercial development and dealing with overcrowded houses were among the issues addressed by Southampton Town Board candidates during the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association’s meeting Wednesday in Flanders.

This year’s town election sees a former supervisor return to the ballot as a write-in candidate and a four-way race for two Town Council seats in which the incumbent was prohibited from running due to a town term-limit law.

Incumbent Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who has the backing of the Democratic party, is the only supervisor candidate on the ballot, as the Republicans opted not to run anyone after Councilman Chris Nuzzi declined their nomination for supervisor.

But former Republican supervisor Linda Kabot, who served in 2008 and 2009 and was a council member for six years before that, is on the ballot as a write-in. Ms. Kabot was defeated by Ms. Throne-Holst in her 2009 re-election bid, in part due, many believe, to a driving while intoxicated arrest that was dismissed after she left office. Ms. Kabot said in an interview that she believes the arrest was politically motivated and cost her the election.

She said the Republicans asked her if she was interested in running but she declined. She has since changed her mind because she doesn’t think it’s right to have an uncontested supervisor race.

The council races feature incumbent Bridget Fleming of Sag Harbor, a lawyer and former prosecutor and Brad Bender of Northampton, a former FRNCA president,who owns a building and design company, on the Democratic side. On the Republican side are Bill Hughes of Hampton Bays, a retired town police lieutenant who is involved in a number of community activities, and Christine Scalera of Water Mill, a former deputy town attorney in Southampton and Brookhaven towns who once served four years as a councilwoman on the Oyster Bay Town Board.

After elected to two four-year terms, Republican Nancy Graboski cannot run again for a Town Council seat.

The council candidates were asked what they’d do about the school tax disparity in the Southampton Town portion of the Riverhead School District, which includes Flanders, Riverside and Northampton.

In recent years, the Riverhead Town section of the district has seen small school tax rate increases while the Southampton Town side has seen school large tax rate increases. Officials say it has to do with the equalization rate, the state formula that is used to divvy up taxes in districts that cover more than one town.

“It’s an enormous problem,” Ms. Fleming said.

Southampton Town reassesses properties every year while Riverhead Town hasn’t reassessed since 1980, she said.

“If we’re getting slammed on school taxes by doing it every year, then I would advocate backing off doing it every year,” she said. In fact, the town no longer receives funding from the state to do reassessments every year, she said, which is another reason to stop the practice.

Ms. Fleming said her fellow Democrati Ms. Throne-Holst is recommending reassessing every four years.

Mr. Bender agreed with backing off annual reassessments.

“We’re the most economically depressed area in town and we pay the highest taxes,” he said.

Ms. Scalera said state legislation is needed to address the problem. One change she advocates is for the state to require separate equalization rates in districts covering more than one town.

“It’s unfair the way it is now,” she said.

Mr. Hughes said he thinks schools should put out their own tax bills, rather than have the town put out school tax bills.

Candidates were also asked how they’d bring commercial development to the Flanders/Riverside/Northampton area, which has very little commercial development now.

Ms. Fleming said she’s on a town Riverside Revitalization task force that is addressing this issue. One proposed solution is the creation of a new sewer district in Riverside, which would allow more development than is currently permitted. The county is currently studying that issue, she said.

The town also plans to better address “quality of life” issues and to construct a road connecting the industrial park at the former drive-in site to Old Quogue Road.

Mr. Bender said there are new types of sewer systems that he believes are better for the environment and could help bring development to Riverside.

“The key is getting the right businesses,” Mr. Hughes said, adding that the community should decide what type of businesses it wants in Riverside.

Ms. Scalera feels community input is needed, but noted that the town also will have to offer incentive packages to lure development.

“You have to be careful with the sewer system,” she said. “It brings a lot of density with it.”

What would the candidates cut in the budget?

Ms. Fleming and Mr. Bender both said they support Ms. Throne-Holst’s proposed 2012 budget, which cuts about 28 positions.

“This is the heavy lifting that has to be done,” Mr. Bender said, adding that “there are still opportunities for concessions” from employee labor unions.

Mr. Hughes and Ms. Scalera both supported a hiring freeze. Mr. Hughes said cuts have to be spread evenly throughout Town Hall.

On the subject of leaf pickup, Ms. Fleming and Mr. Bender both said the decision to end the practice of picking up loose leaves at curbside was made by Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor, a Democrat. They said it’s not the Town Board’s decision.

“He’s a separately elected public official and he’s making his own decision,” Ms. Fleming said.

“I’m not going to punt on the leaf question,” Mr. Hughes said. The town has to work with employee unions to come up with “a common sense approach” to restore the leaf pickups, he said. Ms. Scalera said that while Mr. Gregor is separately elected, the Town Board still controls his budget.

The candidates were also asked about overcrowded rental properties, as the town has seen a spate of busts at such houses in the area.

Ms. Fleming said the town attorney’s office can’t allow cases against landlords charged with overcrowded housing violations to be constantly adjourned. She said working with the town housing authority to create new houses that are owned, not rented, also will improved neighborhoods.

Mr. Bender believes the town needs to be “proactive, not reactive,” on code enforcement issues.

Mr. Hughes said the town should seek restraining orders in court in order to get people out of unsafe housing. The town did that in the past but has since stopped, he said.

Ms. Scalera said prosecuting such cases in state Supreme Court, where fines are generally higher, rather than town court is also more effective.

The two supervisor candidates were only allowed to make brief three-minute statements.

Ms. Throne-Holst said she’s restored the town’s credit rating, cut $9 million from the budget in two years and kept town taxes from increasing. She said she’s created an economic revitalization task force for Riverside, worked with state legislators to get a new equalization rate for the area so school taxes won’t be as high and is planning to put forward legislation to rezone the Rivercatwalk property along the Peconic River so a hotel can be built.

Ms. Kabot said her administration is responsible for many of the things Ms. Throne-Holst is taking credit for.

“I raised the red flags about the sagging economy, cut millions from the town budget and worked tirelessly for you, the taxpayer,” she said. “Throughout 2008 and 2009, I brought the past problems to light and I led the corrective actions to address the sloppy bookkeeping errors, eliminate deficits and present structurally balanced budgets.”

The Republican candidates are also backed by the Conservative party, while the Democrats are backed by the Working Families party. The Independence Party backed Ms. Throne-Holst, Mr. Bender and Ms. Scalera.  Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

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