With the start of the Summer season fast approaching, we thought it would be a good time to review the changes we’ve implemented in the Village over the last two years and the principles guiding us in these changes.
When our current team first came together, we looked at our job as essentially rebooting the governing of the Village. This started with transparency and inclusiveness. Proactive outreach to the community has been—and will continue to be—a core operating principal. We welcome all points of view, respectful disagreement, and open debate. We seek to form a consensus not just among the Board of Trustees (BOT), but also with the community, and we value your input and participation.
We see this approach as a stark contrast to the past. Divisive and costly litigation has consumed an outsized and unsustainable portion of the Village budget and is the primary cause of five years of accumulated budget deficits recently uncovered by auditors from the State Comptroller’s Office. Turning away from a combative approach has allowed us to have a laser focus on matters of real consequence, such as developing a safe, sustainable, and cost effective water distribution system, long-term fiscal viability for the Village, and improvements to village aesthetics and the value proposition for living here.
We have guided our work by the following principles:
3. Fiscal responsibility
4. Environmental stewardship
When we started, many in the Village had lost faith in a fair and even-handed application of village code, and many privileges, such as participation on committees, were reserved for a small group of residents. To change this, we’ve endeavored to appoint new residents to our committees and to revise certain laws that prevented some from having what the majority already enjoyed. For example, we returned the setback requirements for the B zone (waterfront properties) to their original specifications. The changes to these setbacks were made in 2000 in a targeted effort to prevent certain residents from obtaining pools. That change created extraordinarily restrictive setbacks, three times more restrictive than the second-most restrictive municipality on the East End. We also removed the approval requirements for hedges, which were redundant and invited arbitrary application.
We also applied the principle of fairness to the way we employ your tax dollars. Some examples: We carefully examined the costs and use of trash collection and discovered that just a few households used the service year-around while approximately half used the service seasonally. Charges for this service were 6% of our annual budget, so we discontinued it. Likewise, the operating costs for the water distribution system are now based on your consumption, not your tax assessment. The estimated user costs are anticipated to be less than $500 per household per year, depending on your usage.
We hired a new Clerk/Treasurer, increased her hours, and made sure that she can work one Saturday a month so she is more accessible to all residents. We replaced the village attorney with one who is highly capable, conducts himself with integrity, and understands that his first responsibility is to the village residents. Finally, we moved Election Day to make it much easier for all residents to vote in person. The best way to give everyone a voice is to make it easier for everyone to vote.
Village residents now receive regular emails with updates on important village matters and reminders of village meetings, including preliminary agendas. Our BOT meetings are discussion-based and the trustees are engaged so everyone can observe, question, and understand the thought process that goes into our decisions. Comments from residents are encouraged. We have brought experts to our meetings, such as executives from the SCWA, Town Board Officials, and Town Tax Assessors, so residents can ask questions themselves and get direct answers. We have proactively released information on water use and quality; budgets and fiscal performance; and other issues of interest to our community, including public health issues. Our village attorney provides regular updates on legal matters and answers questions at every meeting.
An important and difficult initiative the BOT has undertaken is digitizing all of the village code. This is a multi-year effort that we are about halfway through. It will result in a well-organized, easily accessible, and searchable village code. At the end of this process, all residents will be able to search the code online to get answers without relying on anyone for this information, or an “interpretation” of it. The company we have hired to accomplish this, General Code, has identified gaps and contradictions in our code, which we are actively addressing.
This board recognized early the need for a comprehensive audit of our financials and our practices and controls. With the help of the audit committee, we asked the Office of the State Comptroller to audit the village. State audits of municipalities typically are performed every few years and examine the financials of the most recent complete fiscal year. We discovered that the VDH had not been subject to a State audit for 23 years. After an initial examination of our records for 2017, the auditors concluded that they needed to expand the audit to include five years of financials. After two years, the audit fieldwork is complete and we are awaiting the final report from Albany. Initial findings have been shared with the village budget officer, but these findings cannot be shared with you until the final report is released in Albany. The audit findings will be made available to you as soon as we receive the report. We hired a highly respected accountant with extensive experience in municipal finance to assist us in implementing the necessary corrective actions and best practices, help train our village clerk/treasurer, and assist with regulatory reporting.
Past village budgets have been carefully studied and every line item examined with a new lens. Over the past two years, significant changes have been made in the management of the village that have resulted in a 36% reduction in the total budget and a 49% reduction in the operating budget, while improving the value proposition for village residents, lowering property taxes, and building reserves for the first time in recent memory. The Village now has significant monies in reserve (approximately 50% of our budget) to be used for repairs, emergencies, or other unanticipated contingencies.
One of the main reasons we are all village residents is because of the natural beauty that surrounds us. One of our most sacred responsibilities is to protect this environment. We have been working with the Town on water issues that affect Dering Harbor, and we’ve changed our hunting law to support the controlled hunting that Town Officer Beau Payne oversees, resulting in an increase of nearly 20% in the number of deer taken. The overabundance of deer and invasive vegetation have had a devastating effect on the island’s native trees and shrubs. We tasked Chris Johnson, who is a licensed arborist and has been doing a superb job landscaping the Village, to carefully survey the Village and remove dead or damaged trees that pose a potential hazard to residents. In addition, he began a multi-year effort to clear the invasive growth from the village-owned property across from Village Hall.
We looked into the viability of placing solar panels on and around the highway barn, but there is not enough sun. However, we will continue to make environmental stewardship a priority and welcome any suggestions from residents.
We will continue to address long-standing issues and implement solutions to ongoing problems, like changing the name of Shore Road to reduce traffic in the Village. We will continue our outreach to the Town and to village residents. We will keep working with the ARB and ZBA to make the application process easier for residents by allowing alternates to make achieving quorums easier, scheduling regular meetings to decrease approval times, etc. Our goal is to implement common sense solutions to help things run more smoothly and more cost-effectively, and to work better for all residents.
When our current team was put in place two year ago, one of the first things we did was survey village properties and initiate a massive cleanup. The physical work we did in Village Hall and the Highway Barn is a metaphor for our larger mission: We literally cleared out decades of debris, including a mouse nest in one of the desks, so we could get to the important records and start making necessary and meaningful changes. Today the Highway Barn is no longer a junkyard of broken tools and a drain on our insurance and heating budget, but instead is being insured and leased by the SCWA, and this income helps to mitigate the capital expenditures we are making to modernize our water distribution system.
After two very difficult years, the quality of our water is now very good, and the cost to operate the water distribution system has been reduced from just over $100k in 2018 to nearly zero in 2020. Drilling for two new wells will begin in April, new water meters have been installed, our new water tank is in place, and capital improvements, which will take place over the coming years, are fully funded.
We welcome your comments and questions and hope you will move forward with us to focus on what’s truly important for the viability, integrity, and vitality of the Village.
Betsy Morgan, Mayor
Karen Kelsey, Deputy Mayor
Patrick Parcells, Financial Officer and Trustee
Ari Benacerraf, Trustee
Clora Kelly, Trustee