Inside Dering Harbor, the state’s tiniest municipality

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Most Dering Harbor residents are happy to have a separate government from the town, but there have been some discontented rumblings.

Does the Village of Dering Harbor, the smallest in New York State, have a special cachet that makes it worth the cost of higher tax bills than Shelter Island Town residents pay?

Like most things in the refined, harborfront enclave of elegant mansions, it depends on who you talk to.

But even some who have had testy encounters with Dering Harbor’s government become a bit unsure about changing the status quo when there’s talk of seeing the incorporated village — 42 properties and approximately 75 adult residents — dismantled.

One question that quickly becomes a dilemma is if money would be saved if villagers ceded power and authority to the town.

“The question is, what would that [tax] rate be, considering that village expenses would have to be incorporated into the town budget?”

Town Assessor Al Hammond said. “If there was no separate village, those in Dering Harbor would pay what other Shelter Islanders pay.”

As it stands, town residents pay $6,041 in taxes on a property assessed at $1 million, while a Dering Harbor resident pays $5,582. But on top of that, village residents pay about 40 percent more for local services, so in addition to that $5,582 bill from the town, they get a second bill of $2,232 from the village for that million dollar property. And few if any properties in Dering Harbor are assessed at $1 million. Most are much higher.

Dering Harbor Mayor Tim Hogue is quick to note that residents can deduct their local taxes from state and federal filings. That’s something Shelter Island Heights residents, who pay dues to the Heights Property Owners Corporation, can’t do, he said.

What do residents get for their added taxes? The answer, according to a number of sources, focuses on two factors:

• The existence of an Architectural Review Board along with the village’s own Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals ensures that property values will remain stable and nothing will be built that isn’t in keeping with the character of the village.

• Maintenance of Village property by Highway Department Chief Richie Surozenski and his assistance to homeowners, who praise him for maintaining the genteel ambiance of the village and providing a sense of security for their often empty houses. The formal responsibilities for his $60,000 salary include mowing the grass and trimming village-owned properties; snow removal and general maintenance of village roads; and garbage collection. But beyond that, he often is enlisted privately by residents to handle such chores as snow removal from driveways on winter weekends when villagers want to return to Dering Harbor.

THOSE WHO BEG TO DIFFER

James Goldman, a primary author of a Dering Harbor website that has posted figures of tax rates for some comparatively-sized villages, and Patrick Parcells, who ran unsuccessfully for a Village Board seat in 2012, argue that Dering Harbor is being taxed much higher than residents of places such as Sagaponack, North Haven and North Hills. And to a certain extent they’re correct. But those other villages have a much larger tax base.

Mr. Goldman cites 2010 census figures of 11 residents in Dering Harbor, while Sagaponack has 313; North Haven, 833; and North Hills, 4,500. The census figures on the chart are below current numbers, according to Mr. Hogue, but still, Dering Harbor has a smaller tax base than the others.

Mr. Hogue argues that each village offers different services, so there’s no way to compare taxes.

Mr. Parcells said he pays $15,000 a year in taxes. “What do I get for that? Insulted, rumored about and demeaned,” he said.

Mr. Goldman has suggested at Village Board meetings that the tax bite could be reduced by enlarging Dering Harbor. Whether the idea of annexing properties adjacent to Dering Harbor would fly with those just outside its boundaries is only part of the question. Would the town allow such annexation even if those property owners requested it, since it would mean giving up tax revenues?

And if more properties were added to the village, the mayor said it would increase the current $322,505 budget to provide services to those areas. There could also be a problem of providing water to additional households.

Nonetheless, he has left it to Mr. Goldman to go ahead and speak with neighboring homeowners to see if they have any interest in becoming a part of the village.

Mr. Parcells thinks village residents would think hard about whether what they pay in taxes is worth it.

“To some it is, to some it isn’t,” he said, adding that village taxes have a “deleterious effect” on the value of property.

Mr. Hogue disagrees, saying that most who have bought Dering Harbor property knew the tax rate going in and still chose to live there.
“Am I supposed to put up a sign on lawns where properties are for sale saying ‘Buyer beware’?” he asked. At the same time, he acknowledged there are some who come for a vacation, fall in love with the area and buy without doing their homework.

IS BIGGER MORE REMOTE?

Most of the village’s budget comes from taxes paid by owners of the 42 properties in Dering Harbor, of which only eight to 10 are undeveloped, according to the mayor. Other income — small amounts — come to the village through franchise fees from Cablevision, money from the state for road repairs and mortgage taxes, Mr. Hogue said.

What about “right-sizing” that has been Governor Andrew Cuomo’s clarion call, charging there are too many small levels of government costing taxpayers too much. The governor’s office has not responded to a direct inquiry about Dering Harbor.

“The most basic form of government is the village,” Mr. Hogue said.  The higher up you go, the more remote you are from the needs of the people, he added.

If there’s redundancy, it’s at the state and federal level, not the village level, Mr. Hogue said. The cost of trying to dissolve a village government is high and few such efforts have succeeded.

This is part one of a series on Dering Harbor. Part II will look at how tax money is spent; the village election process; and concerns some have about the few dictating to the many in Dering Harbor.