- The economy is floundering, unemployment is on the rise and a handful of local businesses have closed as more and more Americans are finding themselves affected by the general decline in their quality of life. So why have three village government officials signed up once again to tackle the task of trying to turn things around?
"We're not professional politicians, none of us are," asserted Southampton Village
Mayor Mark Epley
, gesturing to his colleagues, Village Trustees Nancy McGann
and Paul Robinson, in a sit-down conversation last week.
At a joint meeting with the Southampton Fire District Commissioner in March, the
village board discussed improvements to the Hampton Road firehouse.
"It's a community," Robinson chimed in. "It's all about dedicated people willing to spend their time making the community special. That's what's motivating us. I could be doing more - look what they're doing."
Four years ago, these three officials - each members of the Citizens with Integrity Party - ran for their current positions, and in 2007, were reelected to their posts. Come June, their names will once again grace the ballot seeking election to a third two-year term.
In those same four years, Southampton Village has experienced the same economic pressures felt nationwide. Leading up to the last Mayoral election, booming with development, real estate deals and seemingly boundless tourism bouyed the mood. Today, revenues funneling into the village are down, along with those in all the East End towns, prompting significant cuts in village spending across departments in the recent budget deliberations which were finalized in an adopted 2009-2010 village budget approved Tuesday, April 21.
Yet, Epley, McGann and Robinson all maintain that the village is better off now than it was before they got there.
"Our focus was to give the employees of the village tools," offered McGann, who also works as a real estate agent for Town and Country in Southampton. "Because of that, we can almost coast through this economic time."
Improvements To Government
Mayor Epley credits these newly adopted accounting practices with the
village's ability to propose a decreased budget and a low tax-rate increase
According to Trustee Robinson, there have been many changes and advancements to the way government is run in the village of Southampton since 2005. Technology has been upgraded, namely in the police department, which went from a manual ticketing procedure to using a computerized version, for better record keeping and efficiencies. During this same tenure, grant writer Jen Mesiano has been hired, identifying millions of dollars in grant funding for the village.
Trustee McGann pointed out that since 2005 the building department was moved to a more adequate facility (they are looking to move again, since their department is now too big for its facility at the Southampton Inn
) and a vehicle replacement system has been instituted for departments to organize vehicle usage and purchases.
But what may have been one of the most important changes during the past four years was how the village board had been monitoring its finances.
Along with the hiring of Village Treasurer Steve Funsch, a certified public accountant, Mayor Epley said the village government has adopted a policy of monthly budget reporting, calculating revenue and expenditure totals and year-to-date comparisons to the past three years. Bank reconciliations are also conducted monthly. Mayor Epley credits these newly adopted accounting practices with the village's ability to propose a decreased budget and a low tax-rate increase for 2009-2010.
"From a debt ratio, we really are in incredible shape," Epley commented. "We have more money in the bank." Pointing to the pictures of past mayors on the wall in his office, the mayor added, "A lot of guys up on that wall did a good job being fiscally responsible. The tax-rate is very low; we pay cash, and have few leases."
The Road Ahead
Seemingly able to sidestep the economic question, for the next budget year at least, the village board also faces an issue that has been both increasingly intensifying and simmering for years - the highly charged issue of immigration controls and a community dependence on day-laborers.
Trustees Nancy McGann and Paul Robinson, along with Mayor Mark Epley marched in the 2008 Fourth of July parade.
Most recently, the board has been instrumental in the issue of a makeshift soup kitchen catering to many immigrant day-laborers at the Southampton Tire Center on North Sea Road. This week, Mayor Epley also fielded media reports of a rise in the homeless population in the village, tied to a growing immigrant workforce. While the mayor has proposed the creation of some kind of centralized facility to move the day-laborer force off of the streets, the concept has not come to fruition as legislation on the matter lies in the hands of the federal government. Outwardly defeated after a recent meeting with New York Sen
. Kirsten Gillibrand
, Mayor Epley relayed the message that if immigration legislation is not passed this year, "Congress isn't going to touch it next year," an election year.
"It is really out of our control, and it's hard because the public wants it under control," Trustee McGann offered. "You really have to take it all in."
Though members of the same party, Trustee McGann said that the members
of the village board "challenge each other."
The village board is also in the process of creating a master plan for future growth, with the final product slated for presentation in May. After almost a year of work, meetings and surveys, the plan reflects the wishes of current residents but does not address the issue of sewage treatment, a key stress point within the village.
"There were a lot of people who never wanted to hear about sewage treatment because they felt like development would sky rocket," McGann asserted. "Certain areas of this village are ripe for development, but not zoned for it. If there are no guidelines, you end up with something you don't like. We are trying to be proactive, rather than reactive." According to Mayor Epley, the need for certain changes within the village, like affordable housing above village stores, simply cannot be met without the sewage problem being addressed.
Also high on the 'to do' list is improving public safety, which the mayor and Trustee Robinson, as the board's liaison to emergency services, claims is one of the village's top priorities. Besides the police force, the village's emergency services rely heavily on a network of volunteers.
"We give benefits to volunteers," Trustee Robinson asserted, noting that recently the board voted to allow for tax cuts to the widows of volunteer firefighters. "We are encouraging people to become volunteers, give them a safe, supportive environment and offer them certain benefits." Mayor Epley also pointed to the purchase of new fire equipment, namely escape harnesses, brush trucks, and new air packs, as also increasing the public's safety. The village board has also recently created trust funds for both the ambulance and fire departments for facility upgrades.
"We are very big in providing health and safety to the community and to the volunteers who provide that health and safety," Robinson added. "We can't compromise."
However, the board does have its work cut out for it in negotiations with the commissioners of the Southampton Fire District. While talks have eased up from the tense negotiations in years past, there is still the discussion of the building of new firehouses and improvements to existing ones.
"We are very big in providing health and safety to the community
and to the volunteers who provide that health and safety,"
"Twelve years ago, the Hampton Road firehouse was inadequate," Robinson offered, explaining that improvements have still not been made. "We've had other things come up.
An issue where the village is progressing quickly is in addressing its environmental concerns. Not long ago, the creation of Southampton Advocates for the Village Environment (SAVE) presented the village of Southampton with an advisory group dedicated to looking into energy efficiency, waste reduction, and general environmental friendliness. In the current fiscal year alone, the village has installed solar panels on municipal facilities, installed light-emitting diode (LED) lighting to cut consumption and electric costs, and installed nine new storm water drains in the area of Hill Street to reduce the amount of pollution running into Lake Agawam.
"Something I am very proud of is that our village Parks Department has always taken this community from an environmental point of view," McGann commented. "We're very open-minded to that."
Last summer, Trustee Bonnie Cannon was reelected to the village board, and new Trustee Richard Yastrzemski joined. Both ran as members of the Citizens with Integrity Party, creating the party's clean sweep of the village board. However, Epley, McGann and Robinson all agree that a five-member board made up of the same party lines is no different than working with board members of different parties. In village government, they say, party affiliation doesn't play a role.
"We are on a different level than the town," Robinson asserted. "It's not parties, it's individuals, and that is the key. We've all presented things, we've all been shot down. We're very open and we listen to the concerns of the people in the community."
The trustees and Mayor Epley pointed to the stabilization of the village's planning, zoning and architectural boards as proof that party lines do not apply to this village's government. "We've appointed people who have been on the opposite side," the mayor asserted. "We don't take the position of saying, 'I don't like that person.' You want all those different perspectives."
"We don't always agree, but we chip away," McGann added.
Not Just A Job
Today, revenues funneling into the village are down, along with those in all the East End towns, prompting significant cuts in village spending across departments in the recent budget deliberations which were finalized in an adopted 2009-2010 village budget approved Tuesday, April 21.
All three maintain that being a member of the village board is a difficult job, but it's one that they hold for both personal reasons and civic obligations.
"It's my give-back to the community," McGann asserted. "It's not a prestigious kind of thing, and I'm proud of that. I have no aspirations [for a higher political spot]. This is about public service, not about politics."
"Every day, we're working," Robinson added. "We're all concerned citizens."
"We're fortunate that we've made some good decisions," Mayor Epley continued. "We invested in infrastructure and we invested in the people too. We have long-term employees, stability in the work force. We have high employee morale."
And, in the end, they handle themselves with a little bit of humor. "It's only 20 hours a week," McGann jokingly noted, recounting the "pros" of the job she was lured into believing before she won a seat on the village board. "Yeah," the mayor retorted with a laugh, "it's a few phone calls here and there."