09/30/13 8:00am
09/30/2013 8:00 AM
FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

When the new bowling alley in Riverhead proposed erecting an animated billboard, it caused many people to wonder about the lit-up Valero price sign in downtown Jamesport, which similarly violates town code.

“What happened?” they asked. “I thought the town was going to make them take that down!”

Setting out to learn about town actions with regard to the Valero sign, I encountered a familiar roadblock: a FOIL request denial. I realized the town’s routine and cavalier obstruction of taxpayer requests for information is a far more important story than failure to enforce sign codes.

The opening statement of New York’s FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) statute says: “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.” It couldn’t be more plain.

Why, then, does our town government so often fail to deliver requested information?

I haven’t kept track, but probably have had more FOIL requests rejected than filled. I’ve seen massive files withheld because they’re deemed “intra-agency material,” though exempt external correspondence was included. Another typical reason/rejection response: “It’s all being discussed with counsel, and is therefore privileged.”

Baloney.

My Valero request was sent to town code enforcement and the town attorney. Code enforcement rejected it, saying deputy town attorney Bill Duffy directed them to do so because the information, “if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

That’s a particularly lame excuse in this case. I contacted Mr. Duffy, but he didn’t return my calls. Because this rejection was so blatantly wrong, I thought about appealing it. I then remembered Mr. Duffy is also the town’s designated FOIL appeals officer; that battle was already lost.

Though an issue of minor consequence, this matter was so simple and straightforward that it made a great example; I contacted the Committee on Open Government (COOG), the state agency that oversees FOIL implementation. In response, the COOG assistant director made many useful observations.

Specifically on the denial of Valero information, she said: “If the agency has issued a notice of violation or a summons for violation of a zoning code, such notice would be required to be made public upon request for various reasons — one, it is likely that it is part of the public record at the courthouse; two, it would represent a final agency determination, which is required to be made public pursuant to section 87(2)(g); three, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for an agency to show that a record such as this if disclosed, would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding.”

(About the common “discussed with counsel” excuse, COOG said: “Merely because records are discussed with an attorney does not make them attorney-client privileged.”)

These are strong words, and it appears that Mr. Duffy is unequivocally wrong. If he returned my phone calls, I’d tell him so.

The point is not that secrets are being kept about the Valero sign (though they are); the point is that every day, residents are routinely and illegally blocked in their efforts to get information about the workings of this town.

It’s not always by denial. A taxpayer sought landfill records and was prepared to pay the 25¢ per page copying fee. The FOIL officer said the taxpayer must first pay $125 to have the 600-page file redacted … after which he could look at the pages, decide which he needed, and then pay copying costs. Outrageous. (Did the town charge this “redacting fee” multiple times for the same file?)

To be clear, plenty of folks working at Town Hall understand their job is to serve the public, and seem to enjoy doing so. Prompt and courteous assistance on some FOIL requests is not uncommon. The town clerk’s office, for example, is unfailingly helpful and incredibly efficient.

Yet, in some areas information is given grudgingly, and every request is treated as a nuisance. The town attorney’s office seems consistently prone to naysaying, foot-dragging, and abusive decisions. This must change.

Last year, Supervisor Walter and three council members joined town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz at a COOG forum on FOIL implementation. Was that just for show?

Back to Valero. The sign went up in 2008. In January 2009, Riverhead filed suit in state Supreme Court against the owner. Since that filing, there have been four motions, two conferences, 91 adjournments, and 0 decisions, with no activity since August 2010. (This info is from the court system website.)

Taxpayers deserve to know: 1) what actions code enforcement officers took before the lawsuit was filed; 2) whether the town sought injunctive relief to — at the very least — turn the sign off; 3) whether fines are being imposed and collected for this small-but-flagrant violation; 4) why there’s been literally no progress on this case in over three years.

The town’s position is that we’re not entitled to know any of these things, even though the state FOIL committee says that’s wrong.

Town attorneys are hired by, and take direction from, the Town Board. Voters who find this behavior troubling should remember that the incumbent supervisor and council members are extremely unlikely to fix this pervasive problem. We need representatives who will treat residents with greater respect, and who will obey the law.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

08/26/13 6:00am

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | The new Suffolk County jail facility in Yaphank.

When the plan to build a new Suffolk County county jail was first proposed about 10 years ago, the political and economic landscape in the county, as well as the nation as a whole, was dramatically different from what we have today. Even back then, when Suffolk County was running budget surpluses, opponents of the new jail project made good arguments that it was ill-conceived, from both budgetary and policy standpoints.

In retrospect, they were right.

Suffolk County is now facing budget deficits that may exceed $200 million in 2014. At the same time, county officials are considering moving forward with Phase II of the new jail in Yaphank, at an expected cost of $100 million, totally paid for by Suffolk taxpayers without any state or federal subsidies. It is madness.

During the past several years, analyses and studies by criminal justice experts have highlighted our flawed approach to crime and punishment nationwide. Accounting for population, the rates of incarceration in the United States are some of the highest in the world. This high rate of incarceration is largely created by our decades long “War on Drugs” and a get-tough-on-repeat-offenders strategy that mandated prison sentences for defendants regardless of the severity of their actual crimes. The result for states and other municipalities has been soaring expenditures for corrections and other related costs of criminal justice systems. These policies have had a crippling effect on state and local county budgets.

However, recent studies on a national level have indicated that this trend is being reversed. Most states have gotten smart about the cost of incarceration and the need to reduce jail populations through less costly alternatives. Even here in New York State, the prison population has decreased during the past few years, with state prisons being closed and costs statewide being reduced. In contrast, Suffolk County has been moving in the opposite direction, with more and more jail cells being built or proposed and increased numbers of people being incarcerated. It has to stop as soon as possible, or it will send this county into a fate similar to that of Nassau County, or worse, Detroit.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has been pressing forward with a plan to reduce the inmate population through less costly alternatives to jail and diversions from incarceration that could eliminate the need for the $100 million Phase II of the new Yaphank jail. Suffolk County legislators and taxpayers should heed his call.

By expanding current jail diversion programs through the Probation Department and the courts, along with implementing new, cost-effective initiatives to divert low-level offenders from incarceration, we can significantly reduce the inmate population here in Suffolk County without jeopardizing public safety. These alternatives to incarceration programs can save taxpayers both the cost of expanding the Yaphank jail, as well as the annual increase in operating expenditures associated with running and staffing this new jail, which would include both hiring more correctional officers and increases in overtime pay.

Suffolk County needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and avoid the costs associated with high rates of incarceration.

Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a non-profit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.

08/18/13 10:00am

TIM GANNON PHOTO | A new 16,700-square-foot building on this site off Miller Way in Calverton will be home to Allied Building Products’ first East End site.

As Riverhead Town residents, our property taxes pay for the services we receive, such as town water and sewage systems, schools, police, sanitation collection, recreation and road maintenance. Our personal property taxes are supplemented by taxes collected from businesses within the town. Having a strong economic base is a necessity; therefore, new businesses should be encouraged to come to Riverhead.

The original purpose of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency was to promote, develop, encourage and assist in acquiring, developing and equipping various business facilities, thereby advancing job opportunities and resulting in an increase in the general prosperity and economic welfare of the people of the town. The IDA has the power to abate property, sales and mortgage tax. Under federal tax law, IDAs can issue tax-exempt bonds to cover manufacturing facilities, governmental projects, nonprofit projects (a YMCA or civic facility) and exempt facilities (airports, solid waste facilities). The creation of new, well-paying jobs was expected to be a direct result of this exchange.

Adchem Corp. is one of Riverhead’s success stories. The company’s IDA process worked according to criteria that had to be met in order to be eligible to apply for tax exemptions. These included local and regional economic conditions, the creation of new jobs, the type of industrial or commercial activity, the benefit afforded to residents and the project location. After the company’s abatement period was over, substantial local jobs were created and they continue to make a significant contribution to our tax base.

I have been attending IDA meetings for almost a year. I can truthfully say that many of the projects approved met very few of these criteria. Two new businesses come to mind. In June 2013, Theriac Enterprises was granted tax abatements for the renovation of the old PC Richard & Sons building on Route 58. This company has offices in 28 states and seven foreign countries. It is well-established and its 21st Century Oncology facility will compete with a local business, North Fork Radiology, right around the corner on Roanoke Avenue. Theriac plans to occupy a third of the new building and rent out the remaining two-thirds. What criteria they met to be granted their abatement is unknown. This is outrageous!

Then, last week, Allied Building Products was granted IDA tax abatements. The public commentary was unclear but it seemed the Riverhead IDA was under the impression that, if not granted, the company would locate in Westhampton, where it was being offered Suffolk County IDA abatements. However, David Doran of Allied Business Products later admitted the company had not filed with the Suffolk County IDA at all. Again, Allied Building Products has over 180 locations and employs 3,100 people. It is well-established. Why does it need tax abatements from us to expand the business?

Has the current IDA board ever seen a proposal it didn’t like? Are we granting every application in order to create a salary base for an employee? Over the past year I have been attending IDA meetings; this board did not deny a single application, with board members often failing to ask pertinent questions along the way.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has continuously been critical of IDA practice statewide. You can access actual NYS IDA audits online and read how few real jobs have been created for the large tax breaks received. Mr. DiNapoli is currently sponsoring legislation that would provide taxpayers with the ability to evaluate if the IDAs are deriving the promised economic benefits, as they state. In cases where criteria are not met and jobs are not forthcoming, benefits can be “clawed-back.”

There are many fine regional examples of IDAs that share, and are proud of, their ability to grow their town’s economic base. If one were to access the Town of Islip, there is a transparent website explaining their projects, current and past, at islipida.com. They celebrate and share their success stories openly; financial reports and projects are there for all to see. In Islip Town, IDA board members and Town Board members are one and the same. They are directly responsible to the taxpayers.

Contrast theirs with ours at www.riverheadida.org and click on the “Projects” tab. There is nothing there. Information is unknown. There is no transparency for the taxpayer. This has become another runaway train.

Here’s the bottom line: Businesses that come to town immediately create the need for the additional services listed in my opening paragraph. Since the business’ taxes are abated, the burden of providing those services fall on the taxpayer. It’s time to re-evaluate the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency and send the responsibilities of the Riverhead IDA back to the Town Board.

Ann Cotten-DeGrasse is a Riverhead resident and current president of the Riverhead school board. She is running a Democratic primary for town supervisor.

08/24/12 8:00am
08/24/2012 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Vince Taldone and his put bull, Champ, just a few weeks before Champ was put down.

In the fall of 2010, I read an article in the Riverhead News-Review about the Town Board reconsidering the town’s animal shelter euthanasia policy.

In the article, Supervisor Sean Walter was quoted as saying, “Some of them have been in there for close to six months. The more humane thing is not to leave them in there for another six months.”

In part, I agreed. Certainly warehousing animals is not very humane.

Councilman Jim Wooten, the town’s liaison to the shelter, noted that most dogs do get adopted, but the less desirable animals, primarily pit bulls, remain.

Pit bulls (including the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier) are some of the gentlest breeds of dogs. The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS.org) gives the pit bull a very high passing rate of 90.6 percent, which is better than the beagle, the cocker spaniel, the miniature poodle and more than 100 other breeds.

I decided that I had to save one of the dogs, so I visited petfinders.com and saw a photo of a senior pit bull mix named Champ, who had been at the shelter for more than one year.

With Supervisor Walter’s comment in mind — as well as my 92-year-old mother’s recent comment that she was lonely — I went off to the shelter.

I fell in love with Champ as soon as I met him. He was quiet, friendly and had a funny walk. A kind volunteer named Pat Lynch explained that Champ never barked and was a very gentle animal who was found abandoned.

When I looked at Champ, standing in the prison-like atmosphere of the shelter, I could almost hear him saying, “Take me home, please!”

So I did.

My mother expected me to return with a small fluffy dog that could sit on her lap. She took one look at the 70-pound Champ and immediately decided that she was afraid of the gentle dog. In time, though, he would win her over.

Shortly after we brought him home, we discovered that he had Lyme disease, hook worm, advanced heart worm and a bladder infection. I could have returned him to the shelter because of medical treatment costs, which the town certainly would not cover (euthanasia is much more affordable). Champ was so loving that I couldn’t imagine parting with him. He had quickly become part of the family. He stayed.

Champ survived the treatments. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I installed a new back door with a sturdy doggie door especially for Champ.

He became even happier when I started taking him on two long walks a day.

I think I enjoyed the walks as much as he did. After living in my neighborhood for almost 12 years, I recognized many but knew almost none of my neighbors. Champ loved every one them and soon my neighbors began to recognize us. We had conversations and I got to know them better.

As for my mother, she started spending her time reminding me (as if I needed to be reminded) to make sure that the water bowl was full and to feed Champ on time. Champ made her giggle like a little girl whenever he would charge out his doggie door and run around the yard to meet me by the grill when I cooked chicken.

He made both of us smile every day and brought us great joy when he lived with us.

In addition to spending more time with Champ, I also started spending time walking dogs as a volunteer at the Riverhead animal shelter. I got to know a number of volunteers who selflessly spent much time and effort to walk, play and otherwise socialize the dogs to keep them from going crazy being locked up for long periods without human contact. Animals need a comforting, human touch as much as we humans do.

Initially, I joined in discussions with the town’s animal shelter advisory committee but the politics were overwhelming and the town was clearly not going to spend any additional monies to make things substantially better for the dogs. I decided to focus on the animals at the shelter and also on Champ.

Over the past almost two years, Champ’s “funny walk” became worse. It was, as we suspected, neurological damage (either from the Lyme disease I treated him for or his previous home). On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 8, Champ went out of his doggie door for the last time. He fell and lost the use of his hind legs.

We had no choice but euthanasia. We adopted him so he wouldn’t be euthanized but the choice was the only responsible course of action.

The next night, I closed Champ’s doggie door. He was gone from our lives and changed the way I thought of pit bulls, as well as many of my friends, family and neighbors who all fell in love with this kind and loving animal. Although he lived only two more years after adoption, he certainly had a loving home that he deserved.

For all of Champ’s buddies at the Riverhead shelter, as well as other town and private facilities, I can only hope that other people will skip the puppy mills and find a place in their lives for the unconditional love of a shelter dog. For me, I will take a little time and surely find another kind, loving animal for whom I can open that doggie door again!

If you are interested in adopting a dog, visit the Riverhead animal shelter. You also may want to visit the YouTube site for New York Bully Crew (a rescue group on Long Island) where you can watch videos of dogs who need a loving home: youtube.com/NewYorkBullyCrew.

Vince Taldone, a retired urban planner, is an executive board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association. He lives in downtown Riverhead.

10/13/11 4:00am
10/13/2011 4:00 AM

Recent News-Review headlines such as these have been striking: “Riverhead planners rebuke two Town Board requests, angering supervisor” and “ZBA ruling has Town Board scrambling.”

The supervisor’s warning followed: “If the Planning Board won’t do what the members of the Town Board request of them to do [sic], then the Town Board is going to have to seriously look at replacing Planning Board members, because they are not doing the will of the elected officials and the people.”

What’s happening here?

The Town Board appoints all Planning and Zoning Board members. Everyone knows that. But many — including some Town Board members — don’t grasp just how powerful these appointees are. Planning Board member Ed Densieski said, “They don’t have the authority to tell us what to do.” He’s right.

It’s no accident that state law gives these appointees terms longer than the elected officials who choose them. Or that the Town Board can’t remove members because they dislike their decisions, but only “for cause,” which sets a very high bar. Or that only one term on each board expires per year, making it impossible to “clean house.” Appointed members are clearly intended to be autonomous and beyond the reach of political pressure, so they can decide issues before them purely on their merits.

And yet the Town Board keeps trying to control them. Mr. Walter is reported as saying, “In my world, we’re the elected officials, but when we ask the Planning Board to do something, we sort of expect them to do it, because we’re the ones people vote in.” He also disagreed with his town attorney’s opinion, saying: “I do not want [the Planning Board] processing the application … until the Town Board interprets the covenants.”

The supervisor’s perspective is fundamentally wrong; these boards are empowered to proceed as they see fit. If appointees simply did the bidding of those in office, the boards would be superfluous.
The battles illustrate how crucial it is that those appointed to these key posts have useful experience, sound judgment and a commitment to enforcing our laws objectively. That raises another problem: the tone set by those doing the hiring.

The supervisor proclaimed at a public meeting: “I personally don’t like the master plan; I think it’s a load of crap.” There can be no doubt about his message to officials who will enforce that code, or about his inclination to appoint members that share his extreme views. Could we expect anyone appointed in this atmosphere to be an objective interpreter?

When the term of a highly experienced ZBA member — a career city planner — ended last year, Mr. Walter said he “wanted to go in a new direction with the ZBA,” choosing a replacement that “more reflects the ideas and values of this Town Board.” That new direction has consequences.

There’s also constant “tinkering.” Last year, the Town Board redefined “floor area” so developers can build bigger hotels while preserving less land. How? By not counting bathrooms, closets and hallways! The argument was “hotel rooms produce the revenue.” Mr. Walter observed developers were “not receiving a benefit” from those other things. (Would you stay in a hotel without them?)
And one Town Board member apparently wants to redefine dictionary terms, so the ZBA can allow an “accessory” use to be larger than a “principal” use.

Some taxpayers believe the Town Board isn’t really upset at the latest planning and zoning decisions, thinking it’s just useful to seem indignant at election time. “Planning committed a travesty!” — (wink).
I prefer to take people at face value. In any case, where we need unified agencies smoothly coordinating town business, we see constant infighting and chaos. There’s even been talk of more lawsuits, with one board suing another. At taxpayer expense. Swell.

Much has been written about a new house in South Jamesport, under construction for a year without required variances. Here, the planning department lost two court fights over a ZBA ruling, after which they and the town attorney faced off against the buildings department, which ignored both. As it turns out, that same project lacks wetlands and floodplain permits, too.

That brings us to the stepchildren of the planning and permitting process: the Conservation Advisory Council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. No one bothers to consult the former and no one is obliged to listen to the latter. Both entities look good on paper, but they sometimes seem just for show — to give the illusion that the town favors landmarks and conservation. The record suggests otherwise.
This still-illegal house in South Jamesport is typical of the dysfunction our town is known for. Why not have a single agency or department responsible for ensuring that every project in town adheres to the laws on the books? Why not provide for enforcement, and accountability? It’s not that hard.

As for zoning — we labored for years, in an open and lawful process, to implement a plan to govern and guide future development. Anyone wanting to amend that plan should campaign openly and invite public participation. The “stealth” approach of disparaging the law, altering codes so they’re ineffective and trying simultaneously to stack boards with biased appointees while tying their hands so they have no freedom to act is reprehensible. We deserve better.

Recently, Town Board members saw a video promoting development in Brookhaven; the supervisor said he’d like to see Riverhead do the same. Sadly, local officials weren’t paying attention. The film narrator plainly stated “Brookhaven Blight” was caused by “haphazard zoning and a lack of code enforcement” and “unrestrained business development.” Those words precisely characterize what happens in our town. To avoid Brookhaven’s fate, we need government that respects and enforces the law.
Larry Simms is a principal in a commercial flooring technology firm. He owns a house in South Jamesport.

09/21/11 8:55am
09/21/2011 8:55 AM

A certified audit by independent accountants showing Riverhead’s financial condition as of Dec. 31, 2009, is complete and available online at riverheadli.com. It establishes that when Supervisor Sean Walter took office on Jan. 1, 2010, an unrestricted general fund surplus of $8,060,427 existed and the town’s governmental funds had “$15,349,623 unreserved and available to meet the town’s current and future needs.”

The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s also recently announced it is continuing the town’s strong AA+ credit rating, the highest credit rating ever held by the town and achieved during my time as supervisor.

Hearing those two news items I could not help but smile.

The then newly elected Supervisor Walter spent most of 2010 semi-hysterical about the town’s financial condition, constantly whining that Riverhead was in the midst of a great financial crisis that he blamed alternately on “the previous supervisor” and “the previous administration.”

Last November, in a frenzy over finances, he fired a fire marshal and other longtime town employees.

Now, in September 2011, we finally have the truth as confirmed by an independent audit and an independent credit rating agency review.

Ronald Reagan said “facts are stubborn things.” These are the stubborn facts.

• The principal reason Riverhead had ample surplus fund balances on Dec. 31, 2009, as now certified, was that during my administration we added $10,875,000 to the town’s reserves, ($7,500,000 from non-refundable contract deposits from Riverhead Resorts; $375,000 from non-refundable contract deposits from Rechler; $2,000,000 from successful settlement of litigation against LIPA; and $1,000,000 through thrifty management resulting in year-end surpluses).

• Riverhead received two upgrades from national credit rating agencies while I was supervisor, and on Dec. 31, 2009, Riverhead enjoyed its highest credit rating ever.

• The six budgets I proposed while in office contained tax rate increases averaging less than the rate of inflation. My 2005 budget proposed a tax rate decrease.

• Each of my proposed budgets used less of the town reserves than had the previous one. All used less than the previous supervisor had.

• Not one of my proposed budgets was adopted without the Republican majority’s increasing it over my objection. For example, my final budget proposed in September 2009 was adopted by the Town Board on Nov. 20, 2009, after the Republican majority had added $1.5 million to it.

In view of the certification of a large surplus when I left office and the renewal of the town’s strong credit rating achieved while I was in office, how can Mr. Walter explain his hysteria about town finances? His hysteria reached a crescendo last November with the adoption of a 2011 budget featuring the firing of town employees, including the fire marshal, and the highest town tax increase on Long Island.

Did Mr. Walter’s inaccurate statements about the town’s financial condition result from deliberate deceit or simple stupidity? You choose. There is a better way to handle the Town’s finances — honestly, openly, truthfully and with respect for the intelligence of the taxpayers.

Mr. Cardinale is a former Riverhead supervisor who is running as a Democrat for his previous post, now held by Republican Sean Walter. Mr. Cardinale is a Jamesport attorney.

08/17/11 4:21pm
08/17/2011 4:21 PM

I am very proud that Vail-Leavitt Music Hall continues to serve its mission to the community. We have managed to sustain ourselves through the efforts of great bands, including Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Lil’ Cliff & the Cliffhangers, Who Are Those Guys, Jessie Haynes, Bruce MacDonald, the EastEnders, Thursday Night Jazz Jammers and numerous others who gave of their time and talent to assist us in fundraising events over the last 10 months. Each of them were part of the annual Blues Festival over the last few years, and we sincerely appreciate their support at this crucial time in our organization’s history. For a more complete retrospective, I encourage readers to see the array of Vail-Leavitt memorabilia on display at Riverhead Free Library during August.

Special thanks are due to our treasurer, Vince Tria. His service to the music hall has been unquestionably meritorious through the last eight-plus years [and] an integral part of the efforts that restored and operated the Vail. Over that time, Mr. Tria was recognized with awards for his exemplary volunteerism by diverse groups including local media, Chamber of Commerce and Daughters of the American Revolution. These accolades have been rivaled only by the frequency of his often unfair vilification by those who perceive him as a political opponent.

This raises the thorny subject of local politics. Over the last nine-plus years that I have been part of the Vail-Leavitt executive board, we attempted to keep the Vail neutral. Our open rental policy provided ample opportunity for all local parties to utilize the hall for fundraising and made the Vail a comfortable forum for candidate debates, public meetings and civic events. In fact, a review of our schedule history shows that up to the town’s inaugural event of 2010, politically affiliated events were split almost exactly 50-50 between the Republican and Democratic parties, in addition to a larger number of nonpartisan Town Board meetings and events.

Our path since that inaugural is well documented in public records: a hostile takeover attempt of the Blues Festival followed by smear and innuendo tactics against us. When I offered to open discussions with town leaders in January, I was rebuffed and insulted. When I inquired about alternative sites or plans, those who had refused to negotiate in good faith suddenly expressed outrage. Finally, in April, as a last resort, I applied for two event dates specifically attempting to prompt town leaders to hold some talks — any talks — with my organization. For the record: Vail-Leavitt Music Hall board did not withdraw its special event applications this year; it was intentionally bypassed by the Town Board in favor of competing Business Improvement District Management Association proposals.

If the Town Board had read those two proposals, as I did, they would have found a compromise was easily attainable. The Vail proposed using its own outdoor stage, which wouldn’t have interfered with the BID’s use of the town showmobile. Despite my attempts to initiate a meeting prior to the Town Board’s action, none was scheduled. Both events were proposed as free admission, so why was the Vail’s specifically overlooked? Neither application included food or crafts vendors, but both food and alcohol were served at the July 16 BID event, legal violations retroactively remedied by a Town Board resolution days after the event. We all know that if the Vail-Leavitt had ever served alcohol without proper advance permits in place, the response would have been swift and severe. It’s also possible there was no proper event insurance in place for either BID event, exposing taxpayers to millions in risk because of the Town Board’s lack of due diligence in reviewing the applications.

The facts are clear. Vail-Leavitt has survived the past 19 months in spite of our town leaders. Local government should act to shield and support the Vail, not attack or ostracize it. One would think a charitable and historic community venue supporting itself independently deserved better. The music hall board never interfered with or criticized the quality of events produced by others, but the reverse cannot be said. When we urged others to talk with us, we weren’t given the opportunity to speak and were simply ignored. I believe our experience and input could have helped.

There was irony to be found in the BID’s “Mardi Gras” event. In the actual New Orleans version, the parades and music events benefit the local economy and also give financial support to many charitable and community organizations. In Riverhead, the event was produced solely for the profit earned by a few select businesses. Meanwhile, town representatives neglected and alienated the town’s oldest historic performance venue, run by an all-volunteer group that gave of its meager resources for community benefit throughout the year. The BID management association eventually and grudgingly offered the Vail a small rental fee to act as an indoor venue on Aug. 6, reminiscent of the schoolyard bully who swipes a dessert cake, eats most of it, then asks if you’d like the crumbs back. They and our Town Board should be ashamed of the manner in which they continue to treat Vail-Leavitt. Arrogance has become a conspicuous cover for an inept and bullying style embodied by these so-called leaders.

My contempt for them is exceeded only by the pride in my steadfast board and our supporters for moving us forward.

Robert Barta is president of the Council for the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Inc.

08/03/11 3:03pm
08/03/2011 3:03 PM

Two major contracts at the Enterprise Park at Calverton were terminated during Sean Walter’s term as supervisor, the $18 million Rechler Industrial Park contract and the $155 million Riverhead Resorts contract.

When Mr. Walter terminated the Rechler contract, he said he was “happy” about what he called good news.

Most residents of Riverhead were not happy nor did they consider the demise of this contract good news.

Gregg Rechler, the most experienced and best financed developer of industrial property on Long Island, gave back what Mr. Walter was fond of calling “The Great Giveaway.” By doing so he dashed Riverhead’s hopes of an $18 million increase to our reserve fund, a larger tax base and thousands of new jobs.

Tellingly, the Rechler group blamed the contract termination on “the Town Board’s inability to understand economic fundamentals and its unwillingness to adapt to the changing economic landscape.” Rechler added: “The board had an opportunity to ensure the future of a more vibrant Riverhead. Unfortunately, the Town Board’s inability to understand the economic fundamentals of a successful project forced us to withdraw.”

Next, Mr. Walter terminated the Riverhead Resorts contract. Ever since, he has refused to consider purchase offers at EPCAL including those proposing an Indian casino and a polo and equestrian center. According to Mr. Walter, all offers conflict with “his plan.”  The property is no longer for sale.  Exactly what is Mr. Walter’s plan?

Mr. Walter’s plan is for the town to pay to survey the land, subdivide it into small lots, obtain all town, state, county and federal approvals, and then pay to build roads and install utilities and other improvements. He’s going to develop EPCAL at taxpayer expense.

In the midst of a recession, at a time when Long Island’s best financed industrial developer has declined to move forward, Mr. Walter, with no relevant experience, no clear plan, and using our tax dollars, is pushing Riverhead to be the developer of property that Long Island’s most experienced developer walked away from.

Mr. Walter promised in his inaugural address that he “would not call for another study at EPCAL.” His “plan” has already cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars for more unnecessary EPCAL studies. He is pushing to spend millions more to subdivide and improve the site, tasks typically paid for by developers. Under Mr. Walter’s plan, EPCAL will be a financial drain on taxpayers for years to come, rather than the source of immediate tax relief that it could be.

Receiving $8 million dollars at EPCAL in non-refundable deposits which happened during my administration is preferable to spending millions of tax dollars at EPCAL as is happening during Mr. Walter’s administration. Selling at market value is preferable to holding EPCAL off the tax rolls indefinitely.

The town must focus on getting EPCAL sold and back on the tax rolls so it can expand our tax base and diminish our tax burden.
The supervisor and Town Board should not use our tax dollars to play real estate developer. Town Boards are untrained and ill suited to be developers. Riverhead Town Board’s past performance trying to be a developer (e.g. at the Suffolk Theater) proved unfortunate and expensive for the taxpayers.

All that’s assured by Mr. Walter’s plan is enormous risk and excessive expense for the taxpayer.

The better way for Riverhead is to sell the property at market value, get it back on the tax rolls, and leave its development to experienced private developers.

Mr. Cardinale is a former Riverhead supervisor who is running for his old post as a Democrat.