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Signs of change appear in East Hampton Town

Signs of change were apparent in East Hampton even before new town board members took their seats.

There was fresh paint and Spackle on the walls, bulletin boards had been taken down and construction supplies and furniture were stacked up in what had been the former supervisor's office.

Bill Wilkinson, who took over as town supervisor, and new Republican town board members Dominick Stanzione and Theresa Quigley, took their seats Thursday night before a packed town board meeting room, keeping their first promise to make town government more open to the public by holding evening meetings.

Wilkinson, a Republican, said the new board had "a unique opportunity . . . to return the town of East Hampton to fiscal stability." Later he was loudly applauded when he introduced a resolution to end the wildly unpopular beach permit fee imposed last year.

The fee, $25 for a car and $15 for a second car with the same owner, was to net $250,000 a year. But it was roundly condemned because, for decades, town residents had gotten their stickers for free.

The $250,000 also pales against the larger financial challenge the new town board faces. The town has already gotten permission to borrow $15 million to cover its debt, and is now negotiating with state officials for the authority to borrow another $13 million.

The amount of debt the town is facing - the amount of fiscal mismanagement by past officials is still being determined through audits - is thought to be as much as $28 million. And, East Hampton's year-round population is only about 20,000 people.

Wilkinson said selling bonds to cover that debt was simply the best way to deal with it. "We are not increasing the debt," he said. "We're lessening the cost."

He warned the town would be considering selling some of its assets that it could no longer afford to keep, and would be working to find ways to reduce expenses. One way to do it, he said, would be for the entire town to come together and come up with ideas. He said more evening town board meetings would be scheduled so people who work during the day could show up.

And he has reserved East Hampton High School for Saturday, Feb. 6, at 3 p.m., for what he called "Our first town shareholders' meeting . . . our residents, our business owners" to talk about ways the town should be governed.

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