‘State of the Town:’ Walter proposes cutting assessor; GOP chair possibly out

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter giving his State of the Town speech Wednesday. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter giving his State of the Town speech Wednesday. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

During his sixth annual State of the Town address Wednesday night at The Birchwood restaurant in Polish Town, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter proposed consolidating certain town positions and departments in order to reduce spending.

“In the upcoming months, I am going to be submitting to the Town Board a proposal to create under local law [an appointed] position of sole assessor and deputy, and to combine the Tax Receivers’ office into the Town Clerk’s office, while preserving key professionals within each office,” Mr. Walter said, adding he predicts the move is going save $150,000.

Eliminating three elected assessor positions and replacing them with two appointed positions could leave assessor Mason Haas, who’s also the town Republican leader and has been at odds with Mr. Walter in recent years, without a job.

The supervisor also proposed merging three facilities — the town highway yard and municipal garage, the state Department of Transportation yard, and town offices on Pulaski Street — into a new building at the Enterprise Park at Calverton. The state would have agree to the merger, Mr. Walter acknowledged.

And, breaking from his written speech, the supervisor predicted that “in a few years, Riverhead will be the microbrewing capital of Long Island,” and acknowledged the efforts of local brewers like Long Ireland, Moustache, and Twin Forks.

The event was hosted by the Riverhead Tri-Club, which comprises Riverhead Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs and has been hosting the annual State of the Town speech for Riverhead’s supervisors for many years.

To read the supervisor’s entire speech, which he mostly kept to, see below.

Good evening everyone. I want to thank you for coming to this, my 6th State of the Town address. It is a great honor and privilege to be here today with Mr. Harry Wilkenson from the Riverhead Kiwanis Club and I want to thank him for hosting this auspicious event. I also want to thank the Riverhead Rotarians and the Riverhead Lions Club members for attending. As always, it is humbling to be here to speak to you about the state of the Town of Riverhead.

It is not an easy task to be the Town Supervisor, however it is a job that I truly love and hope that you find me worthy of. I want to start by reading a passage from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1 verse 28: “Be fruitful multiply fill the earth and govern.” We the residents of the Town of Riverhead were created to be productive, to multiply and govern. Every profession known to man from politician to priest to farmers to the fine men and women of our police department, every profession is encapsulated in this. Each and every one of us has a calling. You may be a priest, you may be a minister, you may be somebody working in the trades, but you are called to do your best.

I am reminded by sociologist Robert Bellah in his book, Habits of the Heart, the three attitudes people have towards their work. The first group treats work as a job. When you do this you see it strictly as a way of paying the bills. But if your main focus is on what you receive from work, you will most likely come to resent it.

The second group approaches work as a career. Here your motivation will be higher, however your focus is on advancement and prestige. That means however, when your career isn’t going well you can feel like your self-worth is on the line. There are people very close to me that approach their work as elected officials as a career. It is a very dangerous thing to define yourself by your career, especially if you are an elected official.

The third group sees their job as a calling. Now, logically speaking, if there is a calling there must be someone making the call. For me, that someone is God. That call often comes as a gentle pull at your heart strings. Anyone who sees their work as a calling knows that their work, no matter what it is, has purpose; it has true meaning. The level of the job is irrelevant. You could be a doctor or a pastor and you might get sucked into treating your job as just a way of making a good income. Therefore, it’s just a job. On the other hand a garbage collector may view what he does as making the world a cleaner place. In other words, he or she treats his job as a calling. So why do I say all this? Is there a point? There are many people here that think that the politicians run for public office because they have large egos– because they and nobody else can do the particular elected official’s job. They like the prestige and what goes into being a politician.

But for me? I view this job as a ministry. I value the act of serving. I honestly view the position of town supervisor as a way for me to help others. The interesting part is that as I embark upon another election year, I realize it has never been about my ego that drives me to run for Riverhead Supervisor, but rather my desire and willingness to truly help others. It is not something that is engrained in me that I have to be the Town Supervisor. I truly believe it is a calling by God and I want each and every one of you to understand this as I go through the journey over the next 9 months in a quest for reelection. However the voters’ decide, I will be fine as it was God who called me to serve the residents of Riverhead. My staff and I are truly blessed by the positions that God has placed us in to serve.

Now on to the business of the Town. When I came into office there were three main goals. These goals haven’t changed, however we have made amazing strides in achieving them. The first is the budget. When we took office in 2010 we were 2, 10 and 25 years behind in our financial audits. We had deficits of $5.5 million.

The second was EPCAL. EPCAL was coined the place where bad ideas came to die. From ski mountains to race tracks, there was no end to the madness.
The third is Main Street. We inherited a downtown business district with an 80% vacancy rate.
So, I want to focus the State of the Town on where we are on those three goals and then discuss some exciting things on the horizon because I am confident that these three goals will be accomplished shortly. Specifically, we will have a balanced budget, there will be at least one significant sale at EPCAL to create good paying jobs and we will complete the revitalization of Main Street. It hasn’t been an easy path. I can tell you from my perspective it has been a long journey. It is interesting because I have only been in office 5 years. But, quite honestly, some days it feels like a lifetime.

Let’s begin with the budget. The Town of Riverhead is on the right path. For the first time since Supervisor James Stark occupied the office of the Town Supervisor, we are, I believe, one year away from a truly balanced budget. This has not been easy. Over the past several years we have shed over 10% of our workforce. Staff reduction has been done through attrition and through something that has been the most difficult thing to do in my life – layoffs.
When I was first elected, the town was at about 330 employees. We are now down to 289 and unfortunately we may not be done. The budget for 2016, in my estimation, is about $1.5 million from being balanced. Now that’s a far cry from the $5 million dollars that we were off in 2010, however it is still not balanced. But it will be.
For the past several years, I have had a 5 year budget plan and we have been diligently working toward meeting those fiduciary goals. It has been a race from the beginning to get EPCAL subdivided or, quite frankly, run out of fund balance. As I said before, the last time the town’s budget was balanced it was under the leadership of Supervisor James Stark. Since then our town has lived on one shot revenues. The good news is we are weaning our way off reliance on one shot revenues and fund balance as a way to balance the checkbook.
You can be very proud as residents that we are now on what I call a “pay as you go” system. We no longer have to bond to maintain our roads. We no longer have to bond for buying police cars, small capital projects, ambulances or any number of things because what we have done is incorporated the day to day expenses into the budget. All the while, we have reduced our reliance on administrative charge backs. So I am proud to say today that we are only $1.5 million off being balanced for 2016. But our work is not done. Through the efforts of elected officials such as Councilman George Gabrielsen, we are going to realize an additional $600,000 a year in rental income for solar energy projects at EPCAL. That is amazing and that is just the starting point. The lease payments will only go up.

One of the things that was critical to me when I was preparing the 2015 budget was to make sure that the residents of the town received their rebate checks from the State of New York. In order to receive the rebate checks the town had to stay within the tax cap for 2015. In some people’s perspective it may have been easier to raise the taxes by 16%. Raising taxes in an off election year would have been the coward’s way out. You can see what happened in towns to the west of us where tax increases were snuck in at the last minute or towns that raised taxes time and time again. I will not do that to you. I will not do that to the residents of this town. The town has to remain competitive. If we are ever going to attract major businesses at EPCAL, we have to remain competitive in what we do. We cannot….I repeat, we cannot, increase the taxes and look to be unstable to those that may be seeking EPCAL as the home for their businesses.

So, we kept ourselves within the 2% tax cap. The residents of the town will benefit from a rebate check from Albany. It is not over. We have to do other things by June of this year. We have to submit to the State of New York a budget plan that reduces spending by 1%, which equates to $300,000.

Now, I have to remind everybody spending overall for the past 5 budgets that I have prepared has only increased an average 1% per year. I also want to point out that the explosion of tax base on Route 58 has been an amazing windfall to the residents of the Town of Riverhead. Not only do we have wonderful shopping and beautiful stores in a bucolic area, but Route 58 represents 15% of the tax base. What that means to you is that every resident in this town benefits by a 15% reduction in their taxes due to the businesses we have brought onto Route 58 The average homeowner is saving anywhere from $800 to $1200 dollars a year because of those restaurants and stores on Route 58. That is an amazing thing because there are only three ways to fix the budget crisis. The first is to grow your way out. The second is to save your way out. And the third is to increase taxes. This town board has remained true to the propositions that we will cut the size of government, while increasing our tax base. For that I am extremely grateful.

We have been very careful not to increase taxes beyond the tax cap. We have been very diligent in cutting the size of government by reducing, as I said, the workforce by 10% and we have been very steadfast in our resolve to grow the size of the Riverhead economy. The economy of the Town of Riverhead, in my estimation, is the fastest growing town economy in Suffolk County. We have seen the largest growth along Route 58. That has added a tremendous amount to the coffers of the town, so that you, the residents, don’t have to pay additional taxes. But, here is the thing folks. As I said, additional money has to be saved. We have to show the State of New York that we can reduce spending by 1% or $300,000 dollars. So, here’s a couple of things that we have done and then I am going to explain some of the things that I am going to propose to the town board.

Government or institutions tend to serve themselves even if they are set up to serve others. I am going to repeat that. Institutions, whether it be government, or other institutions, tend to serve themselves, even if the sole purpose of why they were set up was to serve people. I say that because one of the most difficult things that I am going to have to do, and that I am doing right now, is to change the face of government. We have been very successful over the past several years of combining the building and planning departments into one department, and reducing the size of the workforce in the building and planning department by two employees. We were very successful in combining the garbage districts, the yard waste facility and the municipal garage under the Town Engineer, which equated to a $70,000 savings a year. But more has to be done. We are very fortunate to have department heads that have stepped up to shoulder additional responsibilities.

You see, this institution of government should not exist solely to serve and feed itself or elected officials. It should not exist to grow exponentially over the years. Government was created to serve the people…to make lives better for people. So, in the upcoming months I am going to be submitting to the Town Board a proposal to create under local law a position of sole assessor and deputy, and to combine the Tax Receiver’s office into the Town Clerk’s office, while preserving key professionals within each office. This consolidation is going to be met with an uproar of people telling me that it cannot be done. You see government and some elected officials tend to serve itself and themselves. Government doesn’t always serve the people. Change is hard. I am not afraid of the challenge.

We can do this consolidation and not one taxpayer will be impacted. Not one taxpayer will see any change. We can create efficiencies that will save the town $150,000 per year, each and every year. Over the next few months, you are going to hear more from me about the consolidation of the Tax Receiver’s and the Town Clerk’s offices, as well as the elimination of an elected board of assessors and the creation of a sole assessor and a deputy. Those moves will save the town $150,000 getting us halfway to the goal of saving $300,000. When we attain that goal of $300,000, which we will, the residents of the Town of Riverhead will again be blessed with another rebate check from the State of New York.

So, you ask how are you going to attain the other $150,000. This is a little bit trickier. I have spoken about this before. My solution is to combine the Riverhead Highway Department located on Route 58, the Municipal Garage located on Route 58, the Buildings and Grounds located on Pulaski Street and the New York State Department of Transportation yard located on Route 58 into one single facility built at EPCAL. I know it sounds radical, but government has to make radical decisions at this point. We cannot just stand by and operate as we normally have done. You see the people of Long Island are voting every day with their feet as they march right off of Long Island. The young adult population of Long Island is in severe decline. They are not interested in our old ways. They are not interested in our high taxes. They are not interested in staying. If we can’t keep Long Island competitive by keeping taxes in check and create good paying jobs, we will become the rust belt of the northeast.

I will be reaching out to Governor Cuomo and our other elected state representatives to work through a proposal that will combine all of those facilities into one facility located at EPCAL.

One of the most difficult things with the financial affairs of the Town of Riverhead is going to be to preserve the town’s credit rating. You see Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s don’t necessarily like it when a municipality burns through its cash to stabilize taxes. In fact, the credit rating services would rather us increase taxes by 6% every single year in a way to preserve fund balance and have more cash than the government needs. I understand why they believe that way. I understand that for most cases, you can’t have a municipality burn thorough all of its cash and maintain a credit rating. But Riverhead is different. Riverhead is sitting on a $100 million asset at EPCAL and, the fact is, I could not in good conscience ever raise the taxes on the residents of the Town of Riverhead, while I know that we have this $100 million asset. So this Friday, February 27, my staff and I will be heading to Moody’s to detail the 5 year budget plan for the town. To lay out the path for the subdivision of EPCAL. To show them some of the offers that have come in unsolicited to buy into EPCAL and to show them that this town is like no other town. We will demonstrate that we are solvent by explaining our fund balance policy and our spending rate that has averaged 1% over the past 5 years. I believe, truly in my heart, that we will maintain our credit rating and that the rating agencies will help Riverhead remain competitive.

Over the past five or six years not only has the town faced a tremendous deficit in its General Fund, it has faced a $4 million dollar deficit in the Community Preservation Fund. You see, previous administrations spent money like drunken sailors. It was if the town had a giant credit card and all we ever had to do was pay the minimum balance. Well, I am pleased to say we have a solution—a very real solution to the CPF deficiency. The bottom line is that we borrowed too much money. Our debt service is about $5.8 million dollars a year and we are bringing in approximately $2 million to $2.5 million dollars a year. How do we correct that problem? We correct it with the help of Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Assemblyman Anthony Pulumbo and our good friend Senator Kenneth LaValle.

Assemblyman Thiele is going to place legislation before the state to extend the CPF program for another 20 years. In a nutshell that means there will be a referendum on the ballot this November to extend the CPF out for another 20 years. This referendum will be specific for Riverhead in that it will enable the town to automatically refinance all of our CPF debt through the Environmental Facilities Corporation for the extended term. We won’t have to go to Wall Street to issue bonds. We won’t have to do anything but make an application to the Environmental Facilities Corporation to refinance that debt. And that refinance will be applied against the credit of New York State, not the Town of Riverhead. If we refinance the debt out for 10 years, the CPF debt service will be brought down to $2.7 million dollars a year, and as I said we are currently bringing in $2.5 million dollars a year. So, in somewhere between 10 and 20 years, we will refinance all of our CPF debt to bring the debt service in line with the CPF revenues we receive. That solves our last budgetary problem.

Let’s talk about the next item on the list, EPCAL. As I have said before, this was the place that bad ideas came to die. We are at an amazing juncture at EPCAL for the first time in the history of the town owning the property, we are about to have a subdivision that will enable the town to sell off all the remaining buildable land at EPCAL. I know a subdivision doesn’t sound glitzy or glamorous. It is not an artists rendering on an easel of some wonderful new business like Cannon or Symbol coming to EPCAL. But it is the first step, the necessary step, in putting the remaining 600 acres of buildable property in the private sectors hands. It was my hope back in 2011 that EPCAL would be subdivided within 2 years. I may have been a little optimistic. Four years later I stand here and say it is almost done. The environmental impact statement is finished. The findings statement should be on the desks of the Town Council members in the next few weeks and we will be in a position to adopt our final Environment Impact Statement. The Zoning Code is largely written. Public Hearings will be held on the Zoning Code. Public Hearings will be held on the Urban Renewal Plan and we will put the finishing touches on the Enterprise Park at Calverton. We will be open for business. It will not be a coming soon sign for election purposes.

What does that mean to you the average taxpayer of Riverhead? It means we are in a position to create good high paying jobs for the residents of Riverhead. Not just the service industry jobs that we created on Route 58, but high tech jobs, industrial jobs, jobs tied to the medical field, as well as jobs tied to science and research. What we have embarked upon is a high tech industrial subdivision that does not reinvent the wheel. A subdivision that is modeled after places like Brookhaven National Lab, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and Stony Brook University, a subdivision that is going to tie into the best of the best of the Town of Riverhead, Suffolk County and Long Island. You can almost hear the excitement. You can almost hear the offers coming in to buy the property. I have often joked around that our ship will come in. Well, the ship is in the harbor, but how we act as a town board over the next year will determine if that ship docks or moves on.

We are almost there. I promise you this. We will not embark upon fool hardy endeavors as the town has done before. I am not interested in a ski mountain. I am not interested in polo ponies. I am only interested in creating jobs that keep Long Islanders on Long Island. You see it seems to me that over the past decade the fastest growing sector of the economy has been government. Something is wrong when government is the fastest growing employment sector. We need to reverse that. We need to be able to keep young adults, like my son Zachary, who just turned 21, here in Riverhead by offering him the opportunity for a job that pays well.

We are in the midst of hiring the firm of Pataki-Cahill to help us market and vet the projects coming through the door. The excitement is real and I have to confide in you that we have had a few offers. Offers that are significant. EPCAL will rise up and be the economic engine of all of eastern Suffolk County. EPCAL will once again be a shinning star for Suffolk County and Riverhead. And everybody in this audience and everybody in this town should be proud of the efforts of this town board to stay the course, get EPCAL subdivided to build a lasting tax base for the residents of Riverhead and the residents of Suffolk County.

Downtown Riverhead is on an amazing trajectory of growth. When I took office early on, Newsday reported that it was as if Supervisor Walter was somehow going to “will” downtown Riverhead back to life. I love that quote. I wish it were true. I wish I could “will” downtown back to life, but we all know that’s not reality.

That being said, we do know what reality is. We do know the Hyatt Hotel and the Long Island Aquarium are both doing well. We do know the Parabell and Sonoma Grill are coming to town. And we do know that the Woolworth revitalization plan is done and has added 19 new apartments to Main Street, complimenting Summerwind’ s 52 apartments. We do know that Connifer is coming to downtown to add new apartments that are geared toward the artisan and culinary fields. We do know that great things are happening downtown. The Suffolk Theater is on fire as they bring acts like Arlo Guthrie and Edgar Winter to Main Street drawing people out to see and experience our wonderful town. We know it is working. All you have to do is look at the success of Patchogue to see where Riverhead is going. Patchogue has always been our sister city. All you have to do is feel the excitement of Patchogue to know what’s happening now and eventually coming to Riverhead.

There have been a couple of projects I have been working on– one of them for the last 16 months. It hasn’t come to fruition yet, but when it does, I guarantee it is going to knock your socks off. Even if we did nothing, downtown is on its way back and there is nothing that could change that. Everything is moving in the right direction downtown.

I am happy to say that we are also going to have another group to help us out with downtown. Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels will be coming to help patrol the downtown area and the immediate vicinity. You see, we have to make our community safe for everyone. Not just the select few. It has been difficult over the last few years to reach out to the Hispanic community. We have hired Spanish speaking police officers and trained other officers in speaking Spanish, however that is not enough. I believe the addition of the Guardian Angels to Riverhead is a good thing. Let me correct that – it is a great thing.

We are on our way on Main Street. It will not be denied. I am happy. I wish that every store was full now, but I know in the not too distant future, every store will be full. Main Street’s future is looking bright.
Over the past five or six years there have been other projects that we have been working on. They may not be sexy projects, but they are worthy projects that are going to protect our environment and preserve our ground water.

I want to turn your attention to the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant. The Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant is undergoing an upgrade that is going to reduce nitrogen discharge into the Peconic Estuary by 77%. Projects such as these protect our environment, which protects our way of life. It’s even more exciting than that. Superintendent Michael Reichel, embarked upon a plan that started some 20 years ago to use the discharge effluent to irrigate Indian Island Golf Course. The irrigation project has been approved by Suffolk County and is currently under construction. This will protect our environment, as well as our bay. Once again, Riverhead is on the cutting edge of technology.

Not to be outdone, the Calverton Sewage Treatment Plant is about to undergo a major upgrade. The Calverton Sewage Treatment Plant is a 1970s secondary treatment plant with no nitrogen removal. The plant discharges directly into the Peconic Estuary. Through the help of Senator LaValle, we were able to obtain a $6.34 million grant to upgrade the Calverton Sewage Treatment Plant to a tertiary treatment plant to remove nitrogen and relocate the discharge north of the groundwater divide and outside of the Peconic Estuary. Real projects that have real results to protect our environment and our way of life.
The story of the Town of Riverhead is about its people. It’s about how we care for each other, how we protect our environment and how we work together for a common good. You see, I believe that the residents of the Town of Riverhead are motivated by a calling. That God has called the residents to do great things for this town. That God has called the residents to do what is right every time regardless of who is looking. That is what makes this town great. That is what has enabled me as your Town Supervisor to turn the ship of state by the stars and not by the lights of the individual mast heads. It’s been a long journey and correcting the path of this ship has not been an easy one. But the course that we have charted has been called out for each and every one of us. Each and every one of us is called to do the right thing for this town for it to continue to correct the problems of a by-gone era. When we succeed we will have good jobs at EPCAL, we will have a Main Street that is thriving and we will have a Town Budget that is balanced—all by God’s will.

I want to take a moment to thank my partners on the town board for guiding this ship by the light of the stars. It has not always been easy, but it has always been rewarding. I also want to personally that the members of my staff Heidi, Carol, Tara and Jill. They have all been an invaluable sounding board and I must admit they are not afraid of reminding me of my place.

Finally, I want to thank the members of my family – my sons Zachary, Timothy and Gregory and especially my wife Cathleen for allowing me to do this job. I couldn’t possibly do this job without the love and support of my family. It is through their love and support, and by my faith, that we continue on to make this town the greatest town in Suffolk County. I want to thank all of you for coming out tonight. Please have a safe trip home and may God bless you all. Good night.

CORRECTION: A previous headline of this article stated that the position eliminated would be that of the Town GOP Chair, Mason Haas. It could be either his position or another assessor position belonging to Paul Leszczynski or Laverne Tennenberg.