When I ran for Riverhead Town Board last year, I made positive suggestions that I believe might help the board through the embarrassing bickering “Honeymooners” moment it is struggling with now. Currently, the board is mud wrestling over important topics like what to do with the Second Street firehouse, the East Lawn building and the armory on Route 58. The board is in a tizzy over how to provide our town justices a safe environment to try cases and we seem to be back to square one on the animal shelter issue.
But I’m not looking for an “I told you so” moment. Let’s get something positive done for Riverhead.
Here’s what the board should do:
1. Stop making important decisions in the dark. This board has before it a plan to spend as much as $15 million to refurbish the armory. Whoa! That’s a lot of money. Is that number a bargain or a complete rip-off? No one seems to know. This board seeks to sell the firehouse for, we think, about $375,000. A good number? Nobody bothered to appraise the firehouse. When you sit on a board, you can’t make huge choices based on guesswork; it’s high time to appraise town assets. When I ran I called for “marked-to-market budgeting,” a system of tracking that involves constantly updating the current value of assets. Our Town Board needs to stop operating with a blindfold on. Swinging at a piñata is fun in the backyard but blindly swinging a stick in the dark isn’t the way to make economic choices.
2. Button your lip. This Town Board needs to stop the cross talk in public when negotiating transactions. Together, our board decided to sell East Lawn and the firehouse. Together, they published a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking buyers for both buildings. Yet when they decided to pull back the RFP, leaving Suffolk Theater owner Bob Castaldi at the altar, they did so at a secret caucus, held behind closed doors and the story came to light only because of reporting by the News-Review. A government body can’t do business that way. These board members need to pick a course together and stick to it. You don’t negotiate in public. You don’t keep changing your mind. You can’t have five separate voices talking for Riverhead.
3. Get some economic analysis. This board has tough choices before it. It would be awfully nice to know they were making decisions based on some sort of empirical data. It’s time to reach out beyond 200 Howell Ave. Do we talk to real estate experts before we develop or sell assets? I watch Channel 22; I don’t hear anyone but the board. We have two major lenders in our backyard, Bridgehampton National and Suffolk County National. What do their analysts say? Do we talk to them? What economic analysis does the board currently use? What basic economic tools does the board avail itself of? Do we subscribe to Moody’s? Standard & Poor’s? Or Bloomberg? Does the board ever engage in an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) analysis when they are assessing what we pay or what to charge? Do they even know what these tools are? I’m sorry, but when I watch Channel 22 and I see the board struggling with basic economics, it seems like someone rolled in an ancient Greek tablet and asked a bunch of school kids to translate it.
This Town Board seeks to borrow money soon; they are looking to sell town assets. How can this board be expected to develop a world-class industrial park at EPCAL if the board members can’t even dispose of the rickety East Lawn building? It’s time this board makes decisions rooted in reality.
It’s time we professionalize what we do and how we do it.
Anthony Coates is an investment and public affairs consultant. He lives in Riverhead and ran for Town Board in 2013.