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Town Supervisor:
Jim Henry: A Pragmatic Approach To Solving Problems

Originally Posted: October 19, 2007

Brian Bossetta


James S. Henry was born and raised in Minnesota. For twenty years he has also been a resident and home-owner in Sag Harbor. He is the proud father of two college-age children, Alex and Claire.

As an entrepreneur, Mr. Henry has served as a founding partner of IVP, a Sao Paulo private equity firm. He has also been a founder and board member of Celtic Vision, a Boston-based cable TV network.

Mr. Henry has written articles for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The New Republic. He is also written two books on the history of Third World debt.

Mr. Henry is an honors graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. A member of the New York Bar since 1978, he has volunteered as an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, specializing in First Amendment and civil rights cases.

Is this your first time running for political office?

Jim Henry: Yes. I'm a life-long community activist. I grew up in Minnesota, went to a one-room country school. Minnesota has an active citizenry; people there have a sort of tradition of getting involved in public affairs. My father was on the school board, and was a county commissioner.

What has compelled you to run for public office?

JH: Back in late March the Democratic committee of Southampton approached me about running for Supervisor with my track record of business, law, economics and community activism. I'm a life-long Independent, and I've never registered with any political party. In order to run I had to register with the Democratic Party in July, but I've supported people ranging from Ronald Reagan to Walter Mondale to Bill Bradley, so I've always thought of myself as pretty independent in my political thinking. Bill Bradley and Senator Schumer have endorsed me as well as the Working Families party and the Long Island Environmental Voter's Forum, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and a growing number of local supporters as well.

So, there's a lot of excitement about the Democratic ticket this year. There are a lot of good people running who are not professional politicians, and who really care about the community and don't need a job. That's important to understand here because one of the key themes is - in order to move on from saving Sag Harbor to saving Southampton - we have to be aware of the powerful interests working in the background here. Our opponents are professional politicians. So, on all the key issues: The high growth of government spending, the property tax assessments, the property tax system we have here, the absence of any environmental code, any building code, or any environmental policy, or workforce housing, or open spaces, Supervisor Heaney and Councilwoman Kabot have been in lock step. Linda Kabot has said that's she voted with Skip Heaney 95 percent of the time. So, the Democratic ticket as a whole represents a real opportunity for the town to deal with the serious issues that we're facing, on all fronts with deep reform.

What do you think is the number one issue facing the town?

JH: One of the most important issues is the high growth of government spending and the tax system. We've had a town budget that has more than doubled in the last seven years. The Republicans like to talk about having the lowest tax rate in Suffolk County, but all they've done to get that tax rate is to calculate the taxes people are spending at a fraction of their residential property evaluations, and they take credit for the fact that housing values have really soared dramatically in the last decade. And spending, which is largely financed by the property tax, has been growing by 12 percent a year, which is not as fast as the 15 to 20 percent that housing values have grown. So, if you measure the tax burden by that fraction of the house values on average, then the tax rate has declined. But, that's not the real measure of the tax burden that many people face. For instance, older people who are on fixed incomes have seen their house values go up but they aren't interested in moving. I have an 89 year old neighbor whose tax assessment in 2006 boosted his taxes in a single year from $2,000 to $9,000. Now, he's been living in Sag Harbor for 75 years, he says he wants to die in Sag Harbor, he doesn't want to have to move out or sell. So, the tax assessment problem here is a reflection of the rapid growth of spending and waste in the budget and the expansion of the tax burden and so what you have is a lot of people being forced to sell and move out. So, seniors are having an affordable housing problem along with a lot of other people, such as nurses and first responders and younger people who want to live here, so we have a lot of inequity in the system.

What do you propose to address and fix these issues?

JH: What I propose, specifically, is to freeze taxes for seniors. No more assessments. Secondly, what we need to do, what we did not do, is re-assess commercial property. That is still not being completed. The Republican administration, Kabot and Heaney, refused to reassess commercial property and at the same time boosted assessments on residential properties, so this has shifted the tax burden from big stores like Macy's and K-mart and golf courses that are treated as commercial enterprises, to people like my neighbor and a lot of other folks who are having a hard time. So, going forward, I would not only like to freeze taxes, but the town has the authority to give tax relief based on people's income. So, we could find money in the budget to give a substantial amount of property tax relief to people who need it and to lessen the gap between their tax rates and their incomes.

And, along with tax reform for seniors and commercial assessments, we can look at the smaller enterprises in town - I've been defending these folks in Sag Harbor - we can give them tax relief as well. They're on the verge of being driven out. We want to preserve our local, family owned businesses. Those bigger, box stores should pay their fair share. It's about shifting the burden back to those who can afford to pay it.

And we're going to make sure that next time there is a tax assessment we're going to have qualified people appointed to manage the process. Heaney and Kabot appointed political cronies who had to quit halfway through the job. They didn't inform people properly about how the process worked, what their rights were. We had a record number of grievances, with 8,900 in 2006 alone. It was just an absolute fiasco.

Tax Equity
So, my first commitment is to re-introduce tax equity into the property tax system. My second commitment it to take a look at this $100 million budget, like I did when I was in business, we need professional management of this budget. We can't continue to grow at 12 percent a year. We've benefited from the increase in property values, but it's unlikely that those values are going to continue to increase at 15 to 20 percent a year, so we're sitting on a precipice. If house values don't continue to rise, then the town is going to have to make some cut backs. At the very least we're going to have to cap spending and take a hard look at all the programs. And when you look at the programs the town is undertaking you find waste all over. From 2003-2006 we averaged $4-6 million per year in litigation expenses. That's almost 10 percent of the town's budget. And as an attorney I know that the answer attorney's always come up with is more lawsuits.

The third priority for us in addition to taxes and spending is an environmental policy. Southampton Town, one of the most affluent communities in the county, ought to be a role model for the rest of the country in terms of the environmental policies we should have. At the moment it's not. It's lagging behind other communities like East Hampton and other communities around the country with similar populations like Aspen and Jackson, Wyoming. There's no green building code, we need that. There's no policy to encourage homeowners to adopt energy conservation. Aspen, for instance, if you're building a home over 5,000 square feet, than you either have to adopt solar or geothermal wind technology yourself, or contribute to a fund for other homeowners to do so. We haven't done an energy audit, or a CO2 emissions audit of government buildings and cars here. We only have two hybrid vehicles in a stock of over 100 cars owned by the town. Jackson, Wyoming has adopted a policy to reduce emissions from government buildings and vehicles by 10 percent by the year 2010. We could adopt a similar policy. This is a very serious issue for the entire country and our planet and we can't afford to have local town officials who aren't aware of them, can't handle them, don't understand them and don't care about them.

Speaking of the town cars, is that something you think needs to be looked at? Do you think we should have town cars in the first place?

JH: I think people who are driving cars courtesy of the town - we ought to look very carefully at why 55 people are driving those cars because it's a privilege and it's a very large expense. We ought to also be looking at other issues, like why we have eight boards with 45 people appointed to those boards, many of them get health insurance for their whole families courtesy of the town, so that's another expense item that I would like to look into because a lot of these people are political appointees.

So, you seem to have a sort of fiscal conservative view of trimming government?

JH: I'm a Bradley Democrat. I'm very much into fiscal controls. I think the best government comes when the government has to take a look every year at what they're doing from the bottom up. Is this the best we can do? Is there a better way to do it? Because we have a bond, a trust with the people, I mean, it's not that we're going to just cut costs without thinking about it. One thing I've done with businesses is to go in there and propose to them to cut their costs by 10 percent in three months and people come out of the woodwork with creative ideas to do that. Take a look at the salaries here that are going through the roof. You have the supervisor salary, which Heaney is proposing to increase by 22 percent; he's not doing 22 percent better in his performance, and you've got more than 15 people making over $100,000 a year.

That leads me to another issue, which is work force housing. I met last week with Bob Chaliner, the head of Southampton Hospital, and he told me he lost four out of nine nurses he had hired in the last six months because they couldn't find affordable places to live and they got fed up with the commute. He said even some doctors are having trouble with finding affordable housing.

My plan to fix affordable housing is to make use of the available stock of lower value housing that already exists. This is a market oriented approach. Get a list of all the homes under $500,000 and subsidize the renovation of those homes, or subsidize the mortgage for first time homeowners. That's a quick way to jump-start our catching up with affordable housing.

So, if elected, what is it that you would bring to the office that is unique?

JH: I think my business background is essential. And one of the main elements there is accountability. I believe that elected officials should have to set targets and keep promises. So as sound fiscal management, I would expect people under me to perform as well. I'm going to reward people who perform and those that don't will suffer the consequences.

The second thing would be my business background. The town has a lot of unnecessary litigation that's going on, and that money could be better used elsewhere, and just having a creative, entrepreneurial approach to problems, like I talked about with affordable housing. I'd like to bring those same skill sets to issues like community health where there is a role for the town. Like clinics so people can have access to medical services, like having bike paths in the town, like the LIPA poles issue. So, just knowing the economics and overall impact of these issues. These are complicated issues. We can't just have people in office whose only background is professional politics.

How would you characterize your political philosophy?

JH: I'm a problem solver first and foremost. I don't have any bias against government action or in favor of government action. Markets are able to do some things very well and I think government can do some things very well. I've talked already about areas where the free market can work, but I think the environment is an issue where government has to step in. And health care is another example of where market solutions alone have not gotten the job done, so, I'm very pragmatic.

I think government service is a privilege. It's not something that should be self-serving. When you stop having that public motivation, you should get out. And I've had this all my life. It's kind of like a monkey on my back. We need to put the word public back in public service.

Who has been the most influential person in shaping your political philosophy?

JH: Well, I spent a lot of time in South Africa in the 80's and 90's and one of my encounters was with Nelson Mandela. His optimism during the darkest times with his vision and the courage to stand up for his values, for freedom, and his leadership transformed society.

Name one political figure you consider to be a role model and whose leadership you would like to emulate?

JH: Bill Bradley. He's a terrific example of someone who's independent and cares about all the right stuff. He supported the Reagan tax reforms back in the 1980's because he thought that was the right thing to do. He's been very strong on civil rights and is a real principled leader. He doesn't just take orthodox left wing or right wing positions, he really thinks it through. He's always very engaged and likes to talk to people. He really encouraged me to run because he told me how many great people I would meet and all the stories I would hear. And it's been wonderful, just going through these neighborhoods and going door to door. It's been a real inspiring experience for me.

In your estimate, what is the most important asset of a candidate running for public office?

JH: Courage of your convictions, and integrity.

Do you think your party affiliation fully represents your political point of view?

JH: Well, the Democratic party out here is going through a lot of changes. I'm struck by how many people across party lines - and I'm talking locally here - can come together to work on and solve problems. So, locally I think it's more about problem solving than it is about different philosophies. On a national level, I'm appalled by what's happened to the Republican brand. My first campaign as a volunteer was for Nelson Rockefeller in Minnesota. The tradition of being fiscally conservative and concern for the environment, some of the great environmentalists were Republicans. And civil rights, Lincoln of course, and the Democratic party has a similar challenge. But, I'd like to think it's not about parties - but about issues. It's about the environment, civil liberties and fiscal responsibilities.

Where you surprised by the results of the Republican primary?

JH: No. Not really. It showed to me a Republican party that is demoralized and deeply divided. I think there's a history of division in the party going back to the 90's. And it's about personality more than it is about substance.

Do you think, then, that helps your chances and Democratic chances overall in November?

JH: It should. First of all, we've got great candidates this year. And we have no association with any of these policies, like the tax assessment and other issues I've talked about. I think the Republican party is kind of desperate. This is a Democratic year I think.

How do you envision Southampton in ten years?

JH: I'd like to see it become the role model town that it can be on issues like clean building codes, conservation and energy from sustainable resources. We should be having wind projects. We shouldn't just be a town of getting and spending but we should have a sense of community. I'd also like to see a minor league baseball team here. I love baseball. It's very integrative. Everybody loves baseball. So, let's figure out a way to get a team here in Southampton. It's an uplifting way to bring people together.

But, more broadly, I'd love to have us do something for a living other than just real estate. If this was Mountain View, California we'd have 50 software companies, we'd have our young people staying here and starting companies. We need to find a new economic base. Let's focus on our marine life, oceanography. It's a logical area to expand. We could be an outstanding center of learning for nautical issues and marine science.

What national issues do you think have local ramifications here in Southampton?

JH: The environmental issue is major. This is clearly a crisis. The arctic ice cap last summer lost 40 percent of its size. We're seeing impacts all over. We can't just take it for granted that some national body of government is going to take the lead on this. We have to do whatever we can on a local level to make it a priority for private citizens and businesses and government institutions to clean up our emissions and to conserve.

And responsiveness in government. Many people are feeling that the government is just not responsive to their needs. And just having a strong, ethical culture in our government. And protecting civil rights and liberties. It's conservative to protect the Bill of Rights. There's nothing liberal about that. So there are a lot of issues that we face that mirror the issues we face on a national level.

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