Supervisor cites police contracts, water district in State of the Town address
Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith cited two police contracts, improvements in the water district and code violations issued to some longtime blighted buildings in downtown Riverhead among her top accomplishments during the annual State of the Town address in Town Hall Monday.
“Part of our hometown identity is that we maintain our own police force, water district, and have unique quality of life issues, and when I came to office, I found all three confronted with major obstacles,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.
A recap of the some of the issues she cited follows:
“We had police officers working without a contact for two years, we had a water department struggling to keep its head above water,” the supervisor said.
She said there also were quality of life issues, and blighted properties that make a difference in people’s lives being ignored.
“And here’s what we’ve done to change it: I am happy to say, this administration fulfilled our promise, by successfully negotiating two separate contracts for our police officers and in doing so, we broke the long logjam that had kept our police working without a contract.
“Most importantly, we did it in a way that both respected those who go to work daily to protect and serve us, and you, the taxpayers of our great town. Our new contract with the PBA asks its members to contribute 15 percent toward their healthcare — cutting the cost of government, bringing savings to our residents.
“And, we respected our officers by offering them cost of living adjustments that keep them ahead of inflation and permit professional advancement.”
The police contract, she said, languished under her predecessor, Supervisor Sean Walter.
“When I came to office, it was sad to discover just how much our water district had been ignored,” the supervisor said. “We have great employees to be sure, but our capacity to pump was compromised, we were short staffed, and you probably noticed that we were always quicker than other towns to declare water emergencies.”
The district’s infrastructure was in dire need of assistance, she said.
“Providing water is something we take for granted, but when I arrived, supply was barely able to keep ahead of demand,” she said.
The town committed funds to new equipment and people and applied for and received a $3 million grant to upgrade the district, she said.
“I am happy to say, we’ve turned the corner, we are on a good path and it is up to us to keep that good going,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith also cited a recent investigation by town code enforcement officers, building inspectors, fire marshals and the Town Attorney’s office. More than 100 violations were issued to the owners of three vacant, unsafe buildings downtown.
Because of this, she said, “We have been able to make a dent on improving the visible quality of life here in Riverhead.”
She said some of the buildings had not been inspected by the town in 10 years. The town also hired additional code enforcement staff and adopted a new code that defines blighted, making it easy to enforce.
Ms. Jens-Smith also said she has worked on ways to help ease traffic congestion from June to October, such as partnering with the state on a free shuttle service, revitalizing the Railroad Avenue train station and working with the farm community to observe the best practices they have for relieving traffic congestion.
The supervisor said she’s also created a Traffic Task Force, in which local police and government officials meet with farmers to discuss ways to improve traffic.
The creation of an apprenticeship program, which requires town construction jobs to have apprentice programs, was one of her “proudest moments,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.
The program allows youngsters who might otherwise have to leave Long Island to learn trades that will allow them to stay.
The supervisor also cited the upgrade in the town’s computer systems in her speech.
“When I came to Town Hall, I was struck by how our technologies looked like something out of a bad 1950s science fiction movie,” she said.
“Our computer systems, software, and cyber security were dangerously out of date, vulnerable to attack, and ignored.”
She said that after years of talk and impasse, her budget finally earmarked the money to upgrade the computer systems.
“I want to acknowledge our staff for their efforts to secure our upgrades and thank my fellow board members for their diligence in getting our technology into the modern day,” she said.
The town, at the close of the 2018 budget year, had reduced its outstanding debt by $7.2 million, the supervisor said.
“I was able to come in under budget on operating expenses by $1.2 million, allowing us to put $300,000 into a capital improvement fund, something that has not been done before. This fund will allow us to upgrade our parks and recreations areas that have been underfunded for years,” she said.
“We will also began replenishing our reserve fund. We will be adding $800,000 to our reserve fund. To put that into perspective, during my predecessor’s 10-year tenure, he depleted our reserve funds by almost $12 million.”
She added, “I believe in: pragmatic conservative budget practices. Riverhead deserves a government that is fiscally responsible while improving our services to residents by operating effectively and efficiently.”
As for some of the plans for the upcoming year, Ms. Jens-Smith started off with a proposal to upgrade the town’s Master Plan for the first time since 2003, something the Town Board discussed Thursday.
The 2003 Master Plan is outdated and “could not have anticipated all of where we are today,” she said.
“In 2019, we need to look to our future and decide what kind of town we want to be. Will we have the fortitude needed to preserve our open spaces, rural character, and history? Or, will we knuckle under to unconstrained development?” the supervisor asked.
The zoning on Route 58 allowed for big box retail stores when those were popular in the last decade, but now, with internet sales picking up, changes are needed, she said.
“I believe that our town will come out ahead if we seek to preserve land and open space that will keep our rural character and fend off the pressures of traditional residential development,” she said. “I believe our best future lies with the smart re-development of our downtown.
“I believe we can creatively repurpose some of the retail sites that currently lay empty on Route 58.”
She added: “I don’t believe downtown should be a litany of faceless five-story buildings. We need to keep the character and historic feel of our Main Street.”
The town also has commissioned a parking study that has endorsed a plan that will add 67 more parking spots in our downtown, she said.
“As we continue to craft answers for our downtown, above all, we need to remember that our downtown needs to be uniquely us,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.
“We cannot be Patchogue, we are not Greenport, or Northport, nor Sayville, nor Huntington …We are proudly Riverhead, and we have to fight to keep our identity during this revitalization.”
“No discussion about our future could be complete without a conversation about the former Grumman property at Calverton, or EPCAL,” the supervisor said.
“… After decades of deals of misadventures, this past year we closed on a deal for the sale of EPCAL. A deal that I very publicly opposed,” she said, adding that she felt the town could have gotten more money for the land.
“I believe Town Hall crafted a favorable deal for someone they liked,” she said.
“Nevertheless,” she said, “it is the contract that we have — it is my responsibility to enforce and implement the transaction, in the best way I can, to benefit the people of Riverhead.”
She said of the company in contract to buy the land: “It is now my job to make Calverton Aviation & Technology lives up to their promises.”
Ms. Jens-Smith also said she’s worked to make government more transparent, with televised meetings and evening hours.
“There were some inconsistencies in it,” said Republican Councilman Jim Wooten, who is leaving office at the end of the year.
Ms. Jens-Smith thanked him for his service.
Water infrastructure improvements, Mr. Wooten said, are something the town had been working on for more than six years.
He said the crackdown on blighted properties is something he applauds her on, but that many of the accomplishments the supervisor cited were things that began in the prior administration.
“We knew that in 2019, whoever would be supervisor would reap the benefits of the bonded indebtedness for the landfill, which went down by almost $1 million,” Mr. Wooten said.