Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith blamed the prior administration of Republican Sean Walter for spending all of the town’s reserves, and allowing infrastructure to crumble, in her first State of the Town speech, saying Mr. Walter “effectively kicked the can down the road.”
But she said the town will be more effective by working together, and that the town is in the process of placing a resource officer on site at Riverhead High School, and will be working with the police department and the county sheriff’s office to address issues like gang prevention and opium addiction.
The State of the Town was held at Town Hall, a change from prior years when it’s been held at a local restaurant and sponsored by local service organizations like the Riverhead Rotary, Lions or Kiwanis clubs on a rotating basis.
The full text of the Supervisor’s speech is below:
Thank you so much for joining me tonight … And thank you for your interest in the current state and the future vision of Riverhead.
I’d also like to thank and acknowledge our Legislator AI Krupski and my colleagues on the town board —Tim Hubbard, Jodi Giglio, Catherine Kent and Jim Wooten.
It is important we have this annual review … that we stop to take a look at where we are right now … at where we want to be … and what it’s going to take to get us there.
This brings me to the point of … do you want the good news or the bad news first? Since I always like to end with the good news, we’re going to have to start with the bad news first.
I knew as I took office, that there were some concerns with the Town’s financial stability. But I didn’t know just how bad our finances were. For starters, our general fund reserves or ‘our rainy day money,’ has been gutted. My predecessor began his tenure with over $13 million in the bank. I begin mine with just over $2 million in reserve.
During his tenure, there was no effort to increase revenue. Police contracts were allowed to lapse and we watched our bond rating go down to the lowest rating of any town in Suffolk County.
I also anticipated some infrastructure issues but was not prepared for the extent to which upkeep and maintenance had been ignored in this town.
In order to balance his budget, Mr. Walter effectively kicked the can down the road, leaving a legacy … of peeling paint, crumbling infrastructure, computer systems and software long in need of upgrading… and a budget unable to address these issues.
We have Town buildings plagued with leaks and mold. We have offices with heating and air conditioning that don’t work well … or don’t work at all.
I’m sure there are a few of you sitting on broken seats that weren’t fixed either.
We have town vehicles — including some police cars — with outrageously high mileage, and way beyond their life expectancy.
In the rapidly advancing world of technology, some of our computer programs are like driving a Ford Pinto down the information super-highway.
We are also badly in need of capital maintenance so that our water system infrastructure can continue to supply clean, safe water to our residents.
One sterling exception to the checklist of needed upgrades is our state-of-the-art sewer system, which, just this past weekend, was presented with the prestigious Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence.
Aside from earning kudos from the industry, our waste water treatment facility gives us the ability to reduce nitrogen discharge into the bays. Protecting our waterways and environment is not only critical to our own health and well-being but key to sustaining a healthy tourist industry. But even our celebrated sewer system has issues, as there was no plan in place to pay off the massive debt incurred to build it.
Our court house, located inside our Police Department, has long ago outgrown the space. We’re currently exploring options and weighing the accompanying costs of expanding or relocating our Justice Court to better serve its purpose.
Under my predecessor’s budget, our policemen and women served our community without a contract for over two and a half years. Immediately on coming into office, I began contract talks with the PBA and SOA. But now we’re going to need to fund catch-up retro pay and future cost-of-living increases that were also left out of my predecessor’s 2018 budget.
While I know this sounds bad, I’m sure you can imagine how I felt when I walked in and discovered all this. But since then I have been working hard to change the tide.
We’re proud to support our police force … proactively addressing a multitude of safety issues, and to assist them in better serving the entire community, we’ll soon be implementing a Spanish language support program.
Recognizing that we can be more effective by working together, we’re in the process of placing a school resource officer on site at Riverhead High School and have begun dialogue with our Police Department, school district and the Suffolk County Sheriffs department to creatively address community issues — including gang prevention and the opioid crisis. And thanks to North Fork Initiative, Riverhead will be sharing in the $175,000 state grant to support mental health issues and address the opioid crisis on a local level.
Just as a team of doctors provides better, more unified health care, it makes sense to bring together people or departments working in similar areas. The tri-board meeting of the Planning Board, the Zoning Board and the Land Use Management Departments was the first step to boosting productivity and communication.
We’re exploring more ways to increase communication, efficiency and productivity — throughout Town government.
• New software in the Town Clerk’s office will save significant time and money and
• adding a bi-lingual staffer will translate to better service.
• A more responsive/less expensive phone system will better direct callers and save thousands of dollars a month.
• Switching street lamps over to LED bulbs
• And minimizing off-hours power usage … are just a few simple yet smart energy savers on the table or already in the place.
• An upcoming energy audit will point out additional suggestions for savings.
The new approach in Town Hall is to make decisions with an eye towards saving, the goal being to maximize tax dollars while giving our employees what they need to do their best work.
Doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ because they’ve always been done that way… is no reason to stay with a program, method or approach.
• We’re looking at saving money.
• We’re looking at saving time.
• We’re looking at putting common sense to work.
Before the new Fiscal Impact Statement requirement, resolutions that required spending were voted in without knowing where that money was coming from, As a result, projects were at risk to be delayed, stalled or sidelined because the funds had not been allocated. Now, the money must be available and earmarked before projects can be approved to move forward.
Looking around town, it’s easy to spot a lack of compliance with Town Codes. But they weren’t written to be arbitrary. They are the law- and our Town Attorneys, along with our Code Revision Committee headed by Councilwoman Kent have been reviewing and revising codes to be certain that they are clear, concise and enforceable.
After January’s first blizzard, the bomb cyclone, revising our snow removal code resulted in shoveled sidewalks after all of the following snowstorms. We can’t stop Mother Nature, but we could make getting around “easier and safer” for “pedestrians and drivers”.
• As a result of our Tri-board meeting, we’re adding a new chapter to clarify our environmental review process.
• We’re cracking down on landlords who knowingly permit tenants to live in unsafe, overcrowded housing.
• We’ve clarified our parking restrictions, reduced the penalties and made it easier by setting up online ticket payments.
• Next up, we’re expanding our code enforcement staff so we can actively bring all town codes into compliance.
Our Route 58 corridor has become a regional shopping destination and one we can be proud of. It provides plenty of retail therapy, not only for Riverhead, but for all our surrounding communities. But with on line sales posing a threat- some of Route 58’s big box stores have already shuttered … and more may in the future. So we’re looking far ahead, proactively exploring ideas for alternative uses and tenants, if it comes to that.
Just as Costco and BJs built a business buying in bulk, we’re taking a page from their book and joining in a shared services program with Suffolk County. Taking advantage of the county’s bulk rates, we’re able to buy needed supplies and equipment and access services at a greatly reduced cost. Plus, it further cements a reciprocal relationship with the county, which could be additionally beneficial in the future.
I also want to create a solid partnership with our local business community. Coming in to office, and hearing repeatedly that many local businesses have not felt supported by the Town… I want them to know my door is always open to listen and assist whenever possible.
Take Main Street’s Blue Duck Bakery. With construction beginning for Riverview Lofts, we heard they were concerned about the loss of Main Street parking spots. We don’t believe that existing businesses should have to suffer because a new one is coming in. So I went to the developer and asked him to help out.
Thanks to his interest in being a good neighbor, he’s covering the cost of new signs that will point customers to the nearest parking lot.
Blue Duck Bakery is just one of our unique Main Street businesses. While Route 58 is populated with regional chains, Riverhead’s Main Street is dotted by Mom and Pop… and historic businesses …selling homemade, hand crafted or hand selected goods and services.
Think about the treasures we have downtown…
• the nearly 100-year- old Star Confectionary, (better known as Papa Nick’s)
• Vaii-Leavitt Music Hall,
• the historic buildings on East End Arts’ grounds,
• Sunny’s Riverhead Grill,
• Suffolk Theater,
• the newly restored Preston House…
All these and more…
Our locally owned businesses deserve our supportso they can continue to contribute to our Main Street. Please remember to visit and shop our local businesses.
Main Street’s newest addition, Conifer’s Peconic Crossing will be offering affordable artist housing and even an art gallery to display residents’ works. We’re working aggressively to get the word out so Riverhead’s newest Downtown apartment complex will also help expand our downtown arts community.
The downtown district should be the heartbeat of Riverhead. In moving forward,
• We’re taking a step by step approach to revitalization
• We’re marketing creatively and proactively to attract commercial, retail and restaurants.
• We’re adding wayfaring signs to welcome visitors and point the way to features and attractions.
• We’re enforcing the new law requiring empty storefronts to be masked with attractive fagades, photos or murals
• We’re working to encourage those property owners to put their vacant stores to use.
• We’re looking to establish form-based zoning to assure future building conforms to Main Street’s existing historic character.
• We’ve just gotten a grant to fund a downtown parking plan. And we’ve also begun to address our downtown parking problem by requesting hotel and apartment developers to provide on-site parking for their residents.
• And just last week, we announced a new Downtown Revitalization Committee.
We’re looking for members with experience in specific fields such as marketing, financing, engineering and others. If you’re interested in being part of guiding Main Street’s future, please email our Town Clerk, Diane Wilhelm.
A short walk from Main Street and steps away from the Riverhead Library, Suffolk County Court House and Historical Society, sits the sadly blighted Riverhead Train Station.
• ‘To get back on track”… we’re working to find a beneficial use of the currently shuttered station that would also boost the surrounding area.
• We’ve also asked the MTA to add to the summer service expansion — and continue it through the height of our fall festivals.
• We’d like Riverhead to serve as a traffic hub… adding innovative modes of transportation, like bicycles and the upcoming summer Saturday trolley service.
• And knowing we’re not the only community looking for answers, we’re working with Southold Town on our traffic challenge.
Riverhead’s history is steeped in family farming. But many of our remaining area farms face the challenge of remaining economically viable. We just need to drive down Sound Avenue to see that many farms have already gone the way of history.
• We want and need to save what’s left.
• We’re looking at innovative ideas to protect our remaining farmland.
• We’ve begun to evaluate how and where Transfer of Development Rights can be used.
• And we’re working with farmers and the development community to create collaborative partnerships that could benefit both sides.
Riverhead’s Recreation Department is doing a great job with youth, teen, adult and their innovative intergenerational programs. And they’ll soon open the Day Haven Adult Day Care Center, which will provide an invaluable service for its participants as well as their caregivers. But again, my predecessor dropped the ball …failing to maintain softball fields, soccer fields, and not coming through with long-promised field lights, and more. With so much needing attention, we’re taking a unique tact to securing funding by putting out a national RFI request — in order to form a public/private partnership to help advance our town’s recreational facilities. Additionally…
• We’re executing a grant application to upgrade the septic system at Reeve’s Beach to protect the beach and the sound.
• We’re inching closer to the trail around EPCAL.
• And we’re about to enter into an agreement with Suffolk County on a Main Street Jamesport property that will become our newest walking park.
We’re stepping up… to put 2151 century technology to use, live streaming Town Board meetings so you can watch from the comfort of your couch. Or catch it later on line or Optimum’s Channel 22. You can also watch Planning and Zoning Board meetings and Town Board work sessions. And coming soon — televised IDA meetings!
We’ve also plugged in to social media — so like us on Facebook! And Twitter! And lnstagram! Our website is another portal to our open and transparent government. It’s where you can find, among other things, all the documents pertaining to the EPCAL contract with Luminati and Triple Five.
The sale of EPCAL, the former Grumman facility, has been one of my biggest challenges coming in to office. As many of you know, I did not negotiate the contractual agreement for the sale of EPCAL, the largest undeveloped industrial property in the Northeast.
But I am charged with conducting a Qualified and Eligible hearing to vet the purchaser. The Q&E is a process and as Town Supervisor I have an obligation to this town to have confidence in the commitment and ability of Calverton Aviation and Technologies and their principal owners Triple Five Real Estate 1 and Luminati Aerospace to carry out the intended development plan.
The only way that we can deem them qualified and eligible, is to be solidly assured that they will carry out the intended development plan; which includes…
• restoring the runways
• building out a million square feet of commercial and industrial space in the next five years
• and to show us that they can create real, sustainable jobs in the aviation and technology industries.
Among the many companies already in the existing EPCAL core, Island Fabrication, is a growing business that’s outgrowing its space. We’re working with them on creative options to do whatever we can to keep their business — and their jobs — in our town.
And on the way to joining the EPCAL Core, Peconic Care. This new rehabilitation center has been trying to open in Riverhead for nearly a decade. In less than two months in office, we met, listened, and gave them the go ahead. Now they’re ready to start construction and will soon be providing high paying jobs for Riverhead employees.
We want the entire business community to know Riverhead Town is 100 percent committed to being business friendly. We’ve instituted an open door policy to meet with businesses so we can listen to concerns, issues and suggestions and help work together to carry projects forward. Your success is our success.
That same open door policy and willingness to listen extends to our entire community. But we know that not everyone has time during the work day to stop in or schedule a meeting. To give more residents a chance to come in… or call with concerns or suggestions… we added evening hours. Just call Patrick and he’ll be happy to help. We’re all happy to help. It’s why we’re here.
But we are ALL caretakers of this town. All of us who call Riverhead home share the responsibility — and need to work together — to protect our environment, our farmland and our quality of life.
In closing, Riverhead — and I — both have a lot of challenges ahead.
As we move forward through 2018, I will continue to work hard to do my part to guide Riverhead to a prosperous and successful future.
But no one can succeed on their own. So I would like to take a few minutes to thank a few folks. First, I would like to thank the quality workers of our town, my wonderful staff, John Marafino, Patrick Derenze and Cindy Clifford… as well as my fellow colleagues Jim Wooten, Catherine Kent, Jodi Giglio and my Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard… and all of you for joining us here this evening.