Equal Time: Walter got his numbers wrong

11/22/2010 5:49 PM |

There were statements that appeared in a News-Review article last week, “Cost to shift on big parties,” that invite scrutiny. It would be too much to comment on all of them. So let’s examine a few.
In the article, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter is quoted as saying, “…because you’ve got too many vineyards and too many farmers abusing the situation.”
There are only four wineries that actually produce wine on their premises in the Town of Riverhead. There are also perhaps six tasting facilities, most of which also own a vineyard, for a total of 10 establishments. If Mr. Walter’s number of $50,000 worth of “excessive cost” to town taxpayers is correct, that is an average of $5000 per winery.
We at Paumanok Vineyards have seen the fire marshal once in the last two years,  to inspect a tent that had been erected, making sure there were fire extinguishers in the tent, an exit sign — for a tent with no walls — and that the extension cords used were commercial grade. That inspection, including driving time, took less than one hour. My guess is that this was worth $25 in overtime costs, if he was paid a $50 per-hour base pay, in two years.
At $1,000 per event, Mr. Walter would have to permit 125 events to gross $125,000. If currently the town is inspecting 125 events, the $50,000 excessive cost would amount to $400 per event. That translates into a rate of $800 per hour for the fire marshal, since the overtime portion is half an hour of extra pay  per hour worked on Saturday. I do not know the salary of the fire marshal but clearly this does not add up if the extra time is an hour per event.
If enacted, such a measure will essentially eliminate small events and foster the advent of big events with hundreds if not thousands of people. Because at 100 people, $10 per person is a large penalty, but at 1,000 people $1 per person is a rounding error. If that is what the Town Board wants then it is on the right track.
Now what about the vineyards. Are they in fact the nuisance the town seems to make them? Are the residents getting the short end of the stick? Would the town rather get rid of the vineyards and get those of us who are fed up with the creeping taxation decide to pull out our vines and extend Queens to the North Fork?
Wineries have been credited, by many who remember, to have revitalized the North Fork. They have created hundreds of good-paying jobs in this town. They pay already very high taxes as they require extensive facilities to operate. The bed & breakfast business has taken off largely thanks to the wineries. The restaurants are busier thanks to winery visitors, so are retail stores, gas stations, hotels, delis, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics etc. There is little question that vineyards have had a large positive impact on the local economy. Those who benefit from our industry should make their views known to Mr. Walter as he is embarking on a plan to raise taxes on small businesses.
Vineyards have kept hundreds of acres as agriculture, whereas it would be far more profitable to develop this acreage. For that alone, Mr. Walter should think instead about how to help vineyards stay in business, for his costs would go out of sight if a single vineyard is developed into housing.
Now let us discuss the real issues and what can be done about large parties — defined as parties with 100 guests or more — as Mr. Walter should have done.
• The money generated from the fees. At 125 events per season, it means that every winery and tasting room in the town of Riverhead will be having an event every weekend during the 12-week peak season. There is a single tasting facility where that actually happens; that will count for 12 events. The rest will hold one or two large events per season, each. That is a total of less than 30 events. Where are the remaining 95 events coming from? Is this a fee to recover costs or just an old fashioned tax? Or is the Town Board misinformed? Either way, the proposed $1,000 fees will not raise anywhere near the $125,000 predicted in the town’s 2011 budget.
• With the town complaint that wineries generate noise, the Blues and Mustic Festival downtown generates noise. Traffic generates noise. Parties in backyards of every house generate noise. Boom boxes in cars generate noise. Emergency vehicles generate noise. Corn mazes generate noise. Catering facilities generate noise when they hold outdoors weddings. Irrigation pumps generate noise. There is a noise ordinance on the books. Enforce it.
And how does charging an arbitrary fee make anyone suddenly lower their noise? Isn’t it about enforcing current noise regulations? Don’t violations carry substantial fees and don’t these pay for themselves?
• Mr. Walter was also quoted as saying, “the residents are getting the short end of the stick.” If that is true certainly it needs to be corrected. We have too much respect for our neighbors to be cavalier about something like this. Therefore I challenge Mr. Walter to be very specific and detail, by establishment, any instance where we have been so negligent. If there is an establishment that is abusive, why generalize and stigmatize a whole industry?  If he does not come up with specifics he should retract his statement.
Now, if Mr. Walter has a real problem and wants to craft intelligent solutions, why does he not invite the wineries and tasting facilities to a meeting? He should be prepared to present facts not innuendos and we should be prepared to own up to our problems where they exist. If we are to prosper we certainly need the support of our community. And if he has issues with a particular establishment that happens to be a “vineyard” then why does he not deal with that establishment with existing laws? Since when is accusing everyone for the sins of one is something we tolerate?
As the math above shows, it would appear Mr. Walter is making little sense. He has a choice to retract his statements or come out with specifics. We understand crafting a budget is difficult, but this town deserves better leadership — not cheap shots.

Mr. Massoud is the owner and operator of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.