East Hampton fiscal mess a lesson for all
A grand jury report on East Hampton Town's long and messy slide to fiscal chaos ought to be required reading for elected officials, Thomas Spota, Suffolk's district attorney, said Tuesday.
He's right. But the report ought to rank high on the summer reading list for the rest of us taxpayers, too.
The sad fact is that in East Hampton Town, officials managed for years to successfully sell a load of hooey: which is that it's possible to keep taxes and the level of government services the same, a potent combination that's persuaded the electorate to return many a politician to office. No pain (in service cuts) plus no gain (in property taxes) is usually the easiest route to success.
Ask former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, who did the right thing by raising property taxes. And was almost immediately voted out of office.
Or former Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, who once considered a tax increase only to be overruled by party elders.
He won re-election. And for years made it a point of pride that he never raised the general fund in the county portion of the property tax (whew!).
And Gulotta stood firm - even as Nassau's financial condition deteriorated to the point where the county needed a state bailout.
Gulotta's successor, Thomas Suozzi, had a string of no-increase-in-the-general-fund budgets too. And his successor, Edward Mangano, is hoping that despite a monster deficit, he'll be able to accomplish the same thing - with what appear to be some service cutbacks.
Meanwhile, in Suffolk, County Executive Steve Levy has made the same boast, all the while taking a meat cleaver to expenses.
In East Hampton town, the same kind of business as usual went horribly awry, with town officials so totally abdicating their fiduciary responsibilities that residents will spend decades paying for their mistakes.
Officials, desperate to hold on to their jobs, didn't have the gumption to raise taxes. Or trim expenses. Or do anything in between. Instead, the town pulled money away from capital programs and a preservation fund. Misled rating agencies. Ignored warnings from outside auditors and the state comptroller. And town officials who should have known what was going on appear to have suspected nothing.
The saga of East Hampton town has a lesson for elected officials: Resist pandering, do the job.
As for the rest of us: Let them.
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