No fireworks, no confrontations.
And few new proposals were aired in a debate at the school’s auditorium Sunday between the two candidates running for town supervisor, Democratic incumbent Jim Dougherty and former supervisor Republican Art Williams.
The one fresh idea expressed at the “Meet the Candidates Forum” was by Mr. Dougherty who proposed employing a fire marshal.
In the hour-long session sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island and the Shelter Island Association, moderated by LWV Treasure Kathleen Minder, Mr. Dougherty and Mr. Williams both ran on their records.
The debate touched on most issues currently being discussed by Islanders, including finances, tick-borne illnesses, water quality and the preserving the special character of Shelter Island.
Mr. Williams sounded the theme that Mr. Dougherty is out of his depth as a financial manager. If elected, the Republican said, he would be a more hands-on supervisor.
When he left office the town was in stable financial shape, Mr. Williams added — he was supervisor from 2002 to 2005 — with a healthy reserve fund of $1.65 million.
Mr. Dougherty countered that through his nearly eight years in office he has kept taxes low, while Mr. Williams’ budgets showed significant tax raises. In the current proposed budget for 2016 that the Town Board will adopt next month, taxes will increase by only 3.5 percent. That’s close to the 3.8 average yearly increase for the Dougherty administration, which, the supervisor pointed out, was during the Great Recession.
“If you [were] such a financial guardian of the town, why were your [annual] tax increases 8.8 percent during boom years?” Mr. Dougherty asked. “Something’s wrong with this picture.”
Mr. Williams said that if elected he would meet regularly with department heads — as he did when he was in office — to question them on finances, and not just during budget season. If elected, he would cut costs and find new ways to generate revenues to keep taxes low. Fees at the Recycling Center, for example, Mr. Williams said, “have not been changed since I was supervisor.”
A question from a member of the audience noted that the Youth Center at the American Legion Hall is only open 15 hours a week and yet the town is paying for a director at the center.
Mr. Dougherty said he would look into the matter, but praised the Youth Center “as a big success. It really works.” He added that before his administration created the venue, the Youth Center was “a trailer at the dump.”
Mr. Williams responded, “If I was supervisor I’d give you a straight answer because I’d know the answer.”
Mr. Dougherty returned to the issue later, again praising the Youth Center as an important part of the town’s responsibility to its youngsters.
On a question about funding improvements to the Island’s infrastructure of roads and bridges through either tax increases, sale of bonds or dipping into fund balances, Mr. Dougherty said the town has “the highest credit rating of any town in Suffolk County” and that infrastructure upgrades should not be paid by borrowing.
At the final budget meeting on October 23, Mr. Dougherty signed off on $130,000 to the Highway Department for infrastructure.
Mr. Williams said the picture is not so rosy, that the “reserve funds have been plundered” and infrastructure ”has not been adequately provided for in our budget.”
The issue of the so-called “Hampton-iization” of the Island was touched on, and how ideas of “proportionality” or restricting the size of new house construction could help preserve the Island’s unique character.
Touching on that, Mr. Williams was most decisive answering a question of enforcing building code violations, saying the current lack of enforcement is “a disgrace.”
The Town Board has debated enforcement, with a decision reached on raising the fees for wetlands violations and putting in a new policy of imposing community service for violators.
Mr. Dougherty said the enforcement question “was a tough one,” since raising fees in many cases doesn’t solve problems. He believes that those who build in wetlands have to mitigate the situation. “We have to have the courage and fortitude to tell people you have X months to rectify that,” he said.
Mr. Williams was unequivocal, saying “I don’t think the question is as tough as the supervisor is suggesting.” He had attended several work sessions with the board discussing a case when wetlands and Building Department restrictions had been ignored, he said.
“The Town Board concluded to fine and ask the individual to do community service — which may be performed by his wife. I don’t understand it. It’s beyond me. My conclusion on that application is tear the thing down and get proper permits to rebuild it.”
To a question of whether the town has a responsibility to provide potable water to residents, Mr. Dougherty said it did to a certain extent. He added that the 2016 budget includes funds to study the quality of water as well the incidence of saltwater intrusion into wells.
Water quality is a regional issue, Mr. Dougherty said, and as chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, Shelter Island has “a lot more clout.” The supervisor also noted he is fighting for $5,000 state grants to Island homeowners for septic upgrades.
The town is not responsible to provide potable water to residents, Mr. Williams said, but when it came to water issues “he was shocked” when irrigation laws from his administration were “reversed” by new legislation.
The new law doesn’t completely ban the use of automatic irrigation systems, which had been scheduled for September 2013, based on the original law enacted in 2003.
Both men said publicly-provided water is worth looking into, especially if it is locally sourced, such as the West Neck Water District.
Mr. Williams returned to that theme when a question was asked about a proposed new overlay district for waterfront properties. He said the idea was “back fill” for overriding the irrigation law passed in his administration.
As for the question of reducing tick-borne illnesses, Mr. Dougherty said the 4-poster program — feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide — has been an unqualified success, with 90 percent of a certain type of tick eradicated since the program went into effect in 2008.
He has successfully lobbied the state for additional funding of 4-posters to add to the 37 that are presently deployed, he said. In addition, he’s supporting hunter incentives to cull the herd.
Mr. Williams noted that he didn’t doubt the number of units in the Island’s possession, but questioned whether all had been distributed, plus he thought Mr. Dougherty was late to the party on culling the herd.
In closing remarks, both men asked for the residents’ votes and thanked the League of Women Voters and the Shelter Island Association for the opportunity to discuss the issues.