Town Board balks at taking over IDA

A majority of Riverhead Town Board members now say they do not support having the Town Board take on the duties of the Industrial Development Agency, which offers tax breaks and other incentives to lure businesses to town.
They made their positions known in interviews after two IDA members had lashed out during Monday’s IDA meeting at Supervisor Sean Walter for his proposal to have the Town Board take over the IDA’s duties. Both IDA members, who happen to be members of the Town Democratic Committee, said they’d quit after the panel’s next meeting on May 17. All five town Board members are Republicans.
Councilman John Dunleavy said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t support the change.
“I’m not in favor of that,” he said. “The IDA gives tax breaks to businesses and it shouldn’t be politicized. They should be independent.”
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman Jim Wooten also said in interviews Tuesday that they don’t support taking over the IDA’s duties. That means a majority of the board’s five members opposes the measure.
Ms. Giglio said Town Board members can express their opinions to the IDA now, and don’t need to take over their responsibilities.
“A lot of time is involved in knowing the law and the guidelines of being an IDA member,” she said. “We spent 40 to 60 hours a week on town issues now.”
“I’m not convinced it’s the right thing for elected officials to be doing,” Mr. Wooten said. “It’s best to have an impartial board, rather than elected officials, on the IDA.”
Mr. Walter last month proposed replacing the members of the IDA, who are volunteers appointed by the Town Board, with the Town Board members themselves. He said it had been difficult to find new members for the IDA, and that the IDA has had difficulty getting a quorum.
The supervisor said responsibility for granting tax breaks and other incentives to draw businesses to Riverhead should fall on elected officials because they often get blamed for it, anyway.
Mr. Walter discussed the proposal at an April 22 Town Board work session at which only Councilmen John Dunleavy and George Gabrielsen were present; he then spoke to the IDA on April 26. He said then that the three board members present at the work session supported the move. The Town Board never took a formal vote on the switch.
Mr. Walter addressed the IDA members again on Monday, in what was originally thought to be the current IDA members’ last meeting before the board would vote to take over their jobs. Mr. Walter suggested that IDA members form a committee to help Town Board members adjust to the IDA responsibilities, and he admitted that he wasn’t sure having the Town Board take over the IDA was the right move, although he said it would only be for one year, after which the board could reevaluate.
IDA members were cordial while Mr. Walter was in the room, but after he left, IDA members Angela DeVito and Kathy Wojciechowski teed off.
“Every one of us on this board has done an amazing job for the Town of Riverhead, and we’ve been treated like dirt,” Ms. DeVito said. “The shift to the Town Board really has no rhyme or reason to it, and the excuse that we cannot put together a quorum is smoke and mirrors. The bottom line is, we’ve never been treated in a cordial or respectful manner.”
Ms. DeVito said she finds it “insulting that you throw me a bone and you want me to become your teacher, after you throw me out of your house.”
She said IDA members had found out about the Town Board proposal secondhand.
Ms. Wojciechowski objected to the way the IDA had been characterized, as if its members were “bumbling” and couldn’t do the job.
“We have training and we’re highly educated,” she said.
If an elected board handled the IDA’s responsibilities, she said, many of the tax incentives and other assistance the IDA has given to businesses might not have happened, and those businesses would have left the town.
“This board of non-elected people had the courage to do some pretty unpopular things,” Ms. Wojciechowski said. “To me, it’s unbelievable how many times we get asked if we know what we’re doing.”
IDA executive director Anna Maria Villa had read a report to IDA members showing the progress the group had made since her hiring in August. Prior to that, the IDA had not had an executive director for more than a year.
During that time, Ms. Villa said, the IDA granted assistance to five projects: the Atlantis Marine World hotel and the Summerwind apartments on Peconic Avenue, both of which will get 10 year property tax abatements, as well as sales and mortgage tax abatements; the Bowl 58 project, which will get a partial property tax break; Jaral Properties’ conversion of the Route 25 Best Western into a Hotel Indigo, which will get sales and mortgage tax exemptions; and Dee Muma’s Dark Horse Restaurant at 1 East Main Street, which the IDA voted to give sales and mortgage tax exemptions to on Monday. The IDA has a pending application from EBS Building Systems at EPCAL, which seeks abatements on property, sales and mortgage taxes.
“We anticipate that we will have funneled $55 million into the local economy from just these projects, which will create 293 jobs in the first year and 322 jobs in their second year,” Ms. Villa said.
The IDA also is expected to generate about $335,000 in fees by the end of the year, she said. Its fees come from applicants, who pay a percentage of the amount of financial assistance they receive.
Ms. DeVito said the IDA is increasing its revenues, while the Town Board’s revenues are decreasing.
The other two IDA members present Monday were Lou Kalogeras and Paul Thompson. They were not critical of the supervisor.
Mr. Thompson said the supervisor had a “vision” when he took office, and he wanted to give Mr. Walter a chance to follow through on that vision. Mr. Kalogeras said he hoped the proposal was in the best interest of the town, and that the momentum the IDA had achieved had not been lost. Told of the comments Ms. DeVito and Ms. Wojciechowski made after he’d left the room, Mr. Walter said, “Therein lies the problem. I would meet with these people and everyone was in agreement, then five minutes later, they do the exact the opposite.”
The IDA plans to meet Monday, May 17 to adopt some policies the state requires in order for the IDA to keep its certification. Those policies must be adopted by May 17, Ms. Villa said.
At one point Monday, Ms. DeVito and Ms. Wojciechowski said they planned to resign after Monday’s meeting, even though that would mean the IDA wouldn’t have enough members to adopt the required policies, and could lose its state certification.
“It’s not my problem,” Ms. Wojciechowski said. They later agreed to stay on until May 17.
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