Local pols discuss unemployment, economy

Jobs, and their scarcity in the area, were on the minds of residents when Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Greenport Mayor David Nyce spoke at Peconic Landing Tuesday night. But neither man could offer more than some vague suggestions to ease unemployment on the North Fork.

Mr. Russell suggested that senior life-care communities like Peconic Landing are natural complements to the economy of this rural area, noting that they create a substantial number of jobs. But there are no plans currently afoot to create more life-care communities here. In fact, there’s little appetite among developers to build anything in the area, Mr. Russell said.

“No one want to build new houses now,” the supervisor said.

When he was first elected in 2005, Mr. Russell met regularly with developers to vet various proposals for development. But since the recession started in 2008, he has had no such meetings until last week, he said.

Housing and job opportunities are needed to stop the exodus of 25- to 39-year-olds recorded by the 2010 census, Mr. Russell said. Not everyone is going to be able to buy a house, Mr. Nyce said, calling for more affordable rental apartments. The town has loosened its rules for the creation of accessory apartments in existing homes, Mr. Russell said. But such housing must go to people who qualify financially to be placed on the town’s affordable housing list and the rents that landlords can charge tenants will be limited, he said.

The town will hold a series of public meetings on economic development as part of an effort to update its master plan. One session is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at the East Marion firehouse. Another will take place Monday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m. at the town recreation center on Peconic Lane.

Despite the seemingly bleak jobs outlook in the town and village, both the supervisor and mayor expressed confidence that their municipalities are on sound financial footing.

And Mr. Nyce announced what everyone already assumed: that he will seek re-election for another four-year term. Greenport voters go to the polls March 15.

“I think we’re sound,” Mr. Russell said of the town’s finances. Staff reductions achieved through attrition and a determination to cut spending wherever possible have resulted in a $5.6 million fund balance this year, he said. He’s committed to maintaining a fund balance of 10 percent of his operating budget and that, he said, has helped maintain Southold’s high bond rating, he said.

“The state of the village is good,” Mr. Nyce said. Since he took office in 2007, he has reduced village debt from almost $13.5 million to about $7.5 million, he said. That was achieved, the mayor said, by cutting spending to pay down debt, identifying grants that had been received by former mayor Dave Kapell but hadn’t yet been paid to the village and not embarking on new capital projects unless there was grant money to pay for them. But with ballooning debt payments due by 2014, the mayor said it’s critical to increase village revenues.

At the same time, he said he’s trying to avoid increasing spending as he plans his next budget for the fiscal year beginning June 1. But he predicted there would be an increase in sewer district fees.

Both men said they are determined to maintain a “pay as you go” approach to spending, abandoning borrowing for any but major capital projects, and they have been cautious about embarking on many of those.

“You can’t run a government on debt service,” Mr. Russell said.

One issue that is likely to make borrowing necessary, they agreed, is the need to meet federal and state unfunded mandates to deal with stormwater runoff and end pollution of area waterways.

“We’re literally talking about retrofitting an entire town,” Mr. Russell said. The effort will be expensive and will have to be achieved over a number of years, he said.

As for other spending, the town has access to up to $25 million in borrowing to be paid for with 2 percent preservation property tax revenues expected to be generated over the next 10-years, Mr. Russell said. Because it’s vital to preserve open spaces now and properties can, in this economy, be acquired for less, continuing to invest in land preservation is an opportunity Southold can’t afford to miss, the supervisor said.

Greenport has focused on two major capital projects to preserve its utilities during Mr. Nyce’s administration: the upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant and improvements to the electric department. The $9.2 million wastewater treatment plant project is more than one-third finished, Mr. Nyce said. It’s essentially being paid for with $4.2 million in federal stimulus money and other grants obtained through New York State, he said. As for the electric plant work, village officials will be opening bids next week and work could begin in earnest within a month, the mayor said.

The business climate, both leaders agreed, is better in Southold and Greenport than in many other areas, such as East Hampton and Southampton. But it’s still a struggle for most businesses, Mr. Nyce said. There’s an increase in tourism, but people are spending less money, he said.

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