Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith opened her first State of the Town speech Monday by criticizing her predecessor’s handling of town finances. She later described some new initiatives she hopes to implement, such as providing a resource officer for Riverhead High School and finding a tenant for the long-vacant Riverhead train station.
The address was delivered at a packed Town Hall, a change from prior years, when it’s been given at a local restaurant and sponsored by local service organizations like the Riverhead Rotary, Lions or Kiwanis clubs on a rotating basis.
Here are some of the highlights.
“I knew as I took office that there were some concerns with the town’s financial stability,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. “But I didn’t know just how bad our finances were.”
She criticized former supervisor Sean Walter, who held the office from 2010 to 2017, for depleting the town’s reserve funds.
“Our rainy day money has been gutted,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. “My predecessor began his tenure with almost $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,” she added.
The supervisor also criticized Mr. Walter for letting infrastructure lag and allowing police contracts to lapse.
“In the rapidly advancing world of technology, some of our computer programs are like driving a Ford Pinto down the information super-highway,” she said.
Reached for comment, Mr. Walter said only, “Unfortunately, Ms. Jens-Smith’s comments are misguided and not supported by facts.”
Mr. Walter had criticized the town’s finances in his own first State of the Town address in 2010, saying Riverhead had a $6 million deficit when he took over.
Ms. Jens-Smith said one exception was the town’s sewer plant, which won an award for engineering excellence over the weekend.
The supervisor said the potential sale of 1,640 acres of town-owned land at EPCAL to Calverton Aviation & Technology is “one of my biggest challenges coming into office.”
That buyer is being vetted pursuant to a “qualified and eligible sponsor” hearing to ensure they have the finances and ability to carry out their proposed development plan for the site.
“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 showing us that they can create real, sustainable jobs in the aviation and technology industries,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.
The town, she said, also must look to help existing EPCAL businesses like Island International, which is seeking additional space, and the recently approved Peconic Care addiction treatment and research center.
“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,” the supervisor said, thanking fellow Town Board members and staff.
The supervisor listed a number of specific priorities for downtown Riverhead, including:
• reviving downtown through a “step by step” approach.
• trying to attract commercial, retail and restaurant uses.
• requiring that empty storefronts be masked by attractive facades, photos or murals.
• establishing “form-based zoning” to require that future development in the area conforms to its historic character.
• initiating a downtown parking plan and requiring hotels and apartments to provide their own parking.
• establishing a new downtown revitalization committee.
OTHER PROPOSED INITIATIVES
Ms. Jens-Smith said she’s working to find a beneficial use for the shuttered train station on Railroad Avenue and has asked the MTA to add to the summer service expansion — and to continue it through the height of fall festivals.
Other initiatives the supervisor proposed include the following.
• Implementing a Spanish language support program in the police department.
• Potentially placing a police officer, or “resource officer,” on site at Riverhead High School.
• Opening a dialogue with the police department, school district and Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office to address community issues like gang prevention and opioid addiction.
• Holding joint meetings with appointed town boards to boost productivity and communication.
• Adding a bilingual staff person to the town clerk’s office.
• Strengthening code enforcement and making sure codes are clearly written.
• Cracking down on landlords who allow tenants to live in unsafe, overcrowded homes.
• Developing alternative uses for Route 58 storefronts that have been shuttered due to the increase in online shopping.
• Buying supplies and equipment in bulk and sharing services with the county to reduce costs.