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Supervisor, resident tangle at budget hearing

With only two residents choosing to comment at the Nov. 3 public hearing on the proposed $13.66 million 2022 Town budget, the session might have concluded within 10 to 15 minutes.

But an encounter between Supervisor Gerry Siller and resident Bob Kohn pushed the discussion to more than 40 minutes.

The initial questioner took only a few minutes with queries about scheduling a hearing in mid-day when many people would be unable to attend, and spending increases and taxes. The entire Board participated in responding.

Board members explained they’re funding a capital budget to ensure long-neglected town assets would be addressed and maintained in the future; ways in which money was secured through grants to offset some spending; and efforts to contain rising taxes, while acknowledging the inability, even in a town dependent on a great deal of volunteer service, to keep taxes flat.

Mr. Kohn wanted to discuss something other than the budget — the police contract that expires at the end of 2022. That riled Mr. Siller, who asked multiple times what Mr. Kohn’s questions and comments had to do with the 2022 budget.

There were constant dust ups between the two as Mr. Siller tried to shut down the discussion of next year’s police contract negotiations.

“You can always shut me down,” but not during a public hearing, Mr. Kohn said at one point. “Your job is to listen.” At one point, he told the supervisor to “shut up.”

Mr. Kohn continued his questioning, with Mr. Siller several times mentioning that the questions being asked about contract negotiations should be dealt with during a regular work session.

Mr. Kohn raised the issue of transparency after Mr. Siller said the list of pay to individual police officers was in an addendum to the budget and posted on the Town website.

A bit later, Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams apologized that the addendum hadn’t been put on the web, but within a few minutes announced it would be posted right away.

Mr. Kohn thanked her for her apology for what he charged was a lack of transparency in not making the information available from the start.

Mr. Kohn introduced more questions about why Shelter Island Police receive the salaries they do when the crime rate in town is 8.6% compared with 28.2% in New York City. Ms. Brach-Williams tried to explain the need to compete with other departments for good police candidates.

Mr. Kohn pointed to a 2011 arbitration that the Town lost, criticized by the arbitrator for failing to introduce an economist who might have been able to give testimony that could have changed the results. None of the current Town Board members were serving in 2011.

The Town might be able to hire four more police officers if salaries were not so high, Mr. Kohn said. The supervisor asked if Mr. Kohn expected the Town Board to cut police salaries in half.

Again, Mr. Siller tried to shut down the questioning about a police contract that is to be negotiated next year. Over and over, Mr. Siller repeated his question of what Mr. Kohn’s questions during the budget hearing had to do with the 2022 budget.

The contract is negotiated in executive sessions and often settled through either mediation or arbitration, but in any case, behind closed doors, Mr. Kohn said.

He dismissed Mr. Siller’s statement that questions on the police contract could be heard prior to next year’s negotiations, and Town Attorney Bob DeStefano’s statement that even once a contract is negotiated, the public can comment before the Town Board acts to accept a contract.

“I’m cutting you off now,” Mr. Siller said, again maintaining that the issues being raised could be heard prior to contract negotiations with the PBA next year, but not during the public hearing.

“Shut up,” Mr. Kohn said.

What finally brought the session to a conclusion was Police Chief Jim Read telling Mr. Kohn he should make an appointment to come into police headquarters to discuss the budget proposal and the police contract currently in place, and what Mr. Kohn might like to have considered for the next contract.