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Shelter Island Historical Society’s funding at risk

Beware of what you wish for; you may just get it.

The old proverb may apply to the use of Community Preservation Fund money to pay for some of what the Town Board proposed to cut from the allocation to the Shelter Island Historical Society.

At a Nov. 4 public hearing on the proposed 2021 town budget, Community Preservation Advisory Board Chairman Gordon Gooding joined a chorus of speakers asking that the original $15,000 annual allocation not be sliced to $5,000.

The Historical Society “ties the community together,” Mr. Gooding said. “It shows what our lands are about.”

But Supervisor Gerry Siller turned the question back to Mr. Gooding. How about using Community Preservation Fund revenue to close the gap? he said.

Mr. Gooding said he didn’t know if that would be a legal use of CPF money. Mr. Siller said he plans to reach out to Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) for an opinion. It was Mr. Thiele who sponsored the legislation that created the Community Preservation Fund in the late 1990s that provides taxes paid by new property owners on the East End for land preservation. Mr. Thiele subsequently sponsored legislation allowing up to 20% of CPF money to be used for water quality improvement projects.

The legislator has subsequently talked about providing a similar fund to assist with the creation of affordable housing on the East End. That hasn’t happened, but Councilman Mike Bebon said he plans to followup with Mr. Thiele to see if that is still in the cards.

This is the second successive year that a cut in Historical Society money has been proposed, but when it happened last year while Gary Gerth was supervisor, the Town Board restored the full amount to the budget.

That, of course, was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has cut a hole in budgets at every governmental level and is likely to continue to be a factor going into 2021.

The proposed $13.09 million budget proposal represents a 3.6% increase in taxes. If the $5,000 allocation currently in the budget were to double, it would raise that number to a 3.7% increase, according to Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams.

She said that would cost taxpayers with property valued at a median level an additional $2.30.

Mr. Siller was quick to say that $2.30 may not sound like much, but in reviewing the full budget proposal, raises in various areas by that relatively small amount add up quickly. Given anticipated additional expenses for items such as insurance and expected cuts in revenues that could be as high as $300,000, the Town Board had to work hard to keep the budget from escalating further, the supervisor said.

“We’re pretty much a bare bones operation,” Mr. Siller said.

Historical Society Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson was the leadoff speaker at the hearing, making the case for restoring the projected $10,000 cut to the organization’s budget.

While acknowledging there is no contract between the town and Historical Society, she tried to discount Mr. Siller’s categorizing the money as a “donation.”

The money covers expensive materials needed to protect archival materials, she noted.

Society treasurer Michael McClain said it’s the single place that maintains town records and serves the entire community for information about the town’s history. Students use its resources as do many adults and various organizations, Mr. McClain said.

“We think of it as payment for services,” Mr. McClain said.

Nancy Robin Jaicks, a retired teacher, outlined some of the many materials retained and protected by the Historical Society, including the town’s Declaration of Independence dating back to May of 1775.

Councilman Albert Dickson said he favors restoring the full $10,000. Councilman Mike Bebon said he was inclined to agree and Councilman Jim Colligan said he respects the work of the Historical Society, but wants to explore other possible sources of funding.

Town Board members planned to discuss the budget at the Tuesday, Nov. 10, work session but have until Nov. 20 to adopt a final budget.