Read the entire 2019 State of the Town address

Riverhead Town Superivsor Laura Jens-Smith delivered the 2019 State of the Town Monday. The entire speech is provided below:

“Thank you all for joining me tonight. I want to acknowledge my colleagues on the Town Board, Jim Wooten, Jodi Giglio, Tim Hubbard, and Catherine Kent. As well as Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm.

First, let me thank you, the people of Riverhead, for giving me your confidence to serve as your Supervisor. It has been my high honor and I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me.

Public service is always a challenge. It’s hard work — it’s getting up early, with dedicated volunteers, to landscape and beautify the train station. It’s late nights in the community, meeting and listening to our committed and caring citizens, at Civic Association meetings, community gatherings, and at my listening tour stops. It’s late nights — staying on top of our response to a Nor’easter or a police emergency. It’s working with our devoted staff to ever improve the way we serve the people of our great town.

Public service is a task I am excited to take on each and every day, on behalf of the people of Riverhead because I care so deeply about our community.

Riverhead is unique among Suffolk’s ten towns because we are more than a collection of zip codes, we are small hamlets that add up to one community that we all cherish.

Here, we share the same experiences and less hurried way of life—we can see it in the friendly and heartfelt greetings among neighbors, it’s in the promise of our children to enjoy the same open space and rural way of life that we have…

To be sure, we are residents of Suffolk County, but, above all, here we identify as “Riverheaders” first.

From Laurel to Wading River, Main Street to your street, we are proud to call this special place home.

A little more than sixty weeks ago, I came to the office of Town Supervisor. When I was sworn in, I offered no easy answers—I made one simple pledge. My constant dedication to work tirelessly with our staff and my fellow board members, to work with and for, the people of Riverhead to make a new beginning for our town.

A little over one year later, I am proud to say that in actions and deeds we see a reawakening in our town, we are on the right path, we are creating good every day and it is up to us in this next year to keep good going.

Town Hall is not Washington. We don’t do national defense, we don’t send rockets to the moon, but, in many ways what we do here in this building is equally important, because when we do our job right we shape how you feel about your hometown and the place you raise your children. We are here to fill in the mortar between the bricks. To make a solid foundation for our community to grow and thrive.

Since coming into office last year we have worked hard, each day, to tackle tasks both big and small. Recognizing that the great issues of tomorrow will shape our future but it is in the small deeds of today that we contribute to our quality of life in the here and now.

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.

We had police officers working without a contact for two years, we had a water department struggling to keep its head above — Water — 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% towards 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, but…

This issue was about so much more than making sure our police are fairly compensated, and the taxpayer seeing savings. It was a recognition of the great job the Riverhead Police do for our community. It was about treating valued employees with the dignity and respect they deserve.

We were told this was an unsolvable impasse, the police contract languished under my predecessor. I am proud of this agreement, it is good for Riverhead and we want to keep that good going.

Our police force work so hard every day for us. Just a few months ago Police Officer Kaley Castantine was recognized for her bravery, for rushing into the Sound to try to save the life of a man whose car was submerged. She repeatedly dove into the cold waters off shore, in the dark of an October night, in a brave attempt to save the driver’s life.

I am pleased to say that Officer Castantine is able to join us here tonight. Let’s give Kaley a round of applause.

Thank you, officer, for your service and for doing the extraordinary for Riverhead.

When I came to office it was sad to discover just how much our Water District had been ignored. We have great employees to be sure, but our capacity to pump was compromised. We were short-staffed. You probably noticed that we were always quicker than other towns to declare water emergencies. Our infrastructure was in dire need of assistance. Providing water is something we take for granted but when I arrived, supply was barely able to keep ahead of demand.

So, we took action … We took a fresh look at our technologies, and made an honest assessment of needed improvements and then we went about committing the funds to new equipment and people, so that, we will continue to ensure that the water our children drink is clean, plentiful and safe.

And to lessen the burden on our taxpayers we applied for and received $3 million in grants in order to help upgrade Riverhead’s Water District.

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.

A week ago I announced that through the combined efforts of our code enforcement officers, building inspectors, fire marshals and Town Attorney’s office we have been able to make a dent on improving the visible quality of life here in Riverhead. Through vigorous enforcement we started to crack down on unsafe and out of code, un-inspected vacant buildings by issuing over 100 violations to buildings that haven’t been inspected in 10 years under the previous administration. We have set about getting rid of out of code signs that dot Route 58 and other roadways. We’re fining landlords that don’t respect Riverhead. We’ve hired additional code enforcement staff to deal with this new push to improve our quality of life, something we were told was simply not possible.

In the past, it was difficult for our code enforcement to enforce the law, because we never defined what constitutes a blighted property. So, we have adopted a point system, where issues like broken windows, or overgrown grass count towards defining a home as “blighted”. We have created a “mortgage-in-default” registry which registers every property in Riverhead that is at some stage of foreclosure proceeding. Banks and mortgage holders are now required within ten days to declare that their mortgage is in default.

The banks must inspect those properties to be sure they are secure. We are also being more creative to combat overcrowded housing — and we ask the public’s help in this campaign — If you see what you believe is unsafe overcrowded housing, tell us — report it to our Code Enforcement Department. This administration has been tough on blight, that’s been good for our community and we have to keep that good going.

It is the job of local government to protect the public and to provide basic services. I am proud of the good that has come from these three solid accomplishments.

But, we don’t rest here, our agenda is full, there is more to talk about:

Every Riverhead resident knows all too well about the traffic issues we face from June through October. Since I came into office last year I’ve been looking at creative solutions to help relieve this issue. We have partnered with New York State to offer a free shuttle service, worked to revitalize our train station to encourage people to ride instead of drive, and met with local farmers and business owners to learn from them.

As we continue to work on solutions we have partnered with the Farm Bureau to ask farmers to observe the best practices they have for relieving traffic, as well as note what we can all improve upon.

This past November I created a Traffic Task Force which gathered local governments, committees, police departments and the farming community to discuss these findings, and come up with real ways we can improve the situation.

Ideas ranged from adding traffic control agents at specific corners to assist with the flow of traffic, to even using cones to add a seasonal third lane in particularly bad areas. We will be adding additional traffic control officers to our streets this season to better direct traffic, but I have to be honest. This will be a difficult process, and there is no magic bullet that will solve our traffic problems.

We all know that this is a quality of life issue, so as your supervisor I owe it to you all to try everything possible to improve all our quality of life, and this is the first of many steps toward that goal so that we can keep good going.

Keeping town programs working is vital but keeping people working in town is the key to our future. One of our proudest accomplishments for 2018 was the adoption of an apprenticeship program here in Riverhead. Some of you might ask: what does that mean?

We are all too familiar with the story, our kids grow up and just about as soon as they get the car keys, they leave Long Island. It’s hard to live here: Taxes, traffic, utility rates, and the cost of housing.

Post-high school workers seek the dignity of employment in living wage jobs that offer advancement and opportunity, but those jobs are hard to find here. College is not for everyone, student debt is a drain, many young people and returning workers are looking to learn a trade but don’t know how to begin.

Riverhead’s newly adopted Apprenticeship program now requires town contracted construction companies to participate.

Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training for a new generation of workers, they’re a smart, economical and effective way to help our kids learn a trade from experienced craftsmen while ensuring that the construction industry continues to have a pool of highly skilled workers. This new approach creates opportunities for young adults, to become tomorrow’s plumbers and electricians — carpenters, ironworkers, sheet metal workers and so many more well-paying skilled jobs.

By facilitating Apprenticeship, we help our residents gain access to strong middle class jobs, as well as ensuring Riverhead is a place our kids can afford to live in.

Our children should be able to afford to live in the same place they grew up in, and this bill is one part of making sure that is possible.

Tonight we have with us Brian Nigro, if you would like to stand up. Brian is the product of an apprenticeship program. Instead of having to be saddled with debt to get an education, he was paid to go to school. After graduating from the program and thanks to his successful apprenticeship with the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 28, he was able to buy a home and raise his family here in Riverhead.

Brian’s story symbolizes good, the opportunity and the dignity that comes with a good paying job. That is good for Riverhead and we have to keep that good going.

When I came to Town Hall, I was struck by how our technologies looked like something out of a bad 1950’s science fiction movie.

Our computer systems, software, and cyber security were dangerously out of date, vulnerable to attack, and ignored. It’s close to accurate to say, that you have more uninterrupted computing power in the cell phone in your pocket than we could muster for record keeping, communications and serving our people.

After years of talk and impasse, my budget finally earmarked the money to upgrade our 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. Our systems are going from bad to good, we need to stay ahead of ever-changing technologies and keep that good going.

I would like to provide you with a few highlights as we ended the 2018 fiscal year. At the close of the 2018 budget year we have reduced our outstanding debt by $7.2 million. I was able to come in under budget on operating expenses by $1.2 million. Allowing us to put $300k 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.

We will also begin replenishing our reserve fund. We will be adding $800k 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.

The 2019 budget reflects my commitment to help improve the quality of life for our residents, while remaining within the tax levy cap. 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. It does not have to be an either-or choice. We can reduce our debt and make sure our water district is maintained properly. We can keep our parks and beaches pristine, and stay within the tax levy cap.

My conservative budget does exactly that, something that Riverhead had been told was impossible for years is now reality.

These are some of our happiest accomplishments, but, that’s where we have been — The State of the Town message is also about where we are going. Let me spend a moment outlining the year ahead.

An issue that is now entering the dialogue, that deserves all of our attention, is the updating of our town’s Master Plan which has gone unaddressed for more than 16 years.

For better than a decade and a half, we have continued under the 2003 Master Plan — it is out of date, it could not have anticipated all of where we are today.

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?

What type of town will we leave to our children? It is long overdue to have that honest conversation.

Sixteen years ago, we planned for a future, based in large measure, by an increase in the development of big box stores. In this age of Amazon, we can’t tie our destiny to destination retail.

Sixteen year ago, we saw the first signs that old-style residential housing developments were a net negative and drain on our tax base and school system. The last decade has not seen many tract developments.

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. 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.

From healthcare to assisted residential for retirees, data storage and shared work spaces — we can repurpose our retail as an economic engine for our future.

Since the dawn of America, farming has been Riverhead’s backbone. Our new Master Plan must always stay true to our rural farming heritage, so that we may pass this legacy to our children and keep this special way of life alive long past our own lifetimes on this earth.

One of the biggest pieces of creating a new Master Plan must be a more thoughtful strategy for the future of our downtown. I inherited a piecemeal, haphazard plan for downtown that I have argued is ill-conceived and not well thought out.

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.

Our challenge will be to make the pieces mesh together, to create a vibrant downtown that retains a recognizable look and feel. Our planning efforts must address the challenges of parking, safety, and zoning.

The town commissioned a parking study to learn how best we can use the space we have, and look at additional possibilities for more parking in the future. We have combined that study with a plan that will add 67 more parking spots in our downtown.

We also need to be smart with how we utilize the parking we already have. So we are adding wayfaring signs in order to guide people to where our parking is available.

We are upgrading lighting and adding cameras that will keep downtown a safe and walkable place. I have budgeted for increased foot patrols, so the presence of our police is felt.

We need to thoughtfully address longtime concerns like the flooding that has plagued the back parking lot off the Peconic River.

We also need to be able to better utilize our train station as an asset to our Downtown. My administration has already taken action to make that possible. Security cameras have been added to the station, we are working to move the bus stop away from the train station building to encourage a potential tenant to move in, and police patrols have been increased around the station.

I have also been organizing seasonal train station plantings and clean-ups. It’s been really inspiring to see the community come together to support the beautification of Riverhead and the revitalization of our downtown. Nothing big gets accomplished alone.

As we continue to craft answers for our downtown, above all, we need to remember that our downtown needs to be uniquely us.

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.

EPCAL has long been a symbol of Riverhead’s potential. A gift we received that was envisioned to be an economic generator. 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.

It is my strong belief that the property is worth much more than we got. I believe Town Hall crafted a favorable deal for someone they liked.

I was disappointed to see past opponents of the deal change their minds. Understand, this was a contract my predecessor wrote, one I don’t think was written in the best interest of the people of Riverhead. Nevertheless, 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.

Triple Five and their partner Luminati have formed a company called “Calverton Aviation and Technology,” or “CAT,” for this venture. If you watched our Qualified and Eligible proceedings you will know that CAT has promised a lot to our community. From high-paying jobs in technology, to working class jobs in construction, and even educational and recreational programs for our children. It is now my job to make sure CAT lives up to their promises.

As your supervisor I promise to you that I will fight every day to make sure CAT lives up to their promises. CAT is not without accomplishment; I will never be adversarial, that’s not in the best interest of our town, but, I will be diligent, tenacious and thorough. As I have echoed President Reagan’s words before, when it comes to CAT, our watchwords will be, “Trust, but verify.”

I will be the people’s watchdog, I will make sure the will of the board and the best interests of the people of Riverhead are respected.

Lastly, and on a personal note, I want to say Riverhead’s residents deserve a government as good as they are.

A government that works hard, conducts its business out in the open, and speaks straight with the people it serves. During my brief time as supervisor I have always sought to do just that. I believe in open and transparent government. Your local government should be always be available to serve you.

One of my first acts as supervisor was to create evening office hours because Riverhead’s residents who work during the day should still have access to Town Hall, even at night. I conduct quarterly civic association roundtable discussions, to gain valuable input from community leaders and we keep people informed about issues that affect your neighborhood. I have gone door-to-door, not as a campaigner, but as Supervisor, so that people know they have an ear listening in Town Hall. I’ve conducted a listening tour to hear directly from people about their concerns and to get their input. We’ve made sure IDA meetings are televised and available on our website. Board meetings are streamed live on Channel 22 and on our website and available in archives in no less than 48 hours. We’re creating a 311 service for residents to report issues directly to town departments. We’re not always perfect and there’s much more to be done, but, this administration is committed to making Riverhead more transparent than ever before because in the end, we’re here for the public good and it is our job to keep that good going and pass it on.

All around us there are signs of Riverhead’s greatness.

In a world that too often shouts, we witness our town’s greatness each day, in endless quiet moments. It’s in the laugher of families as they enjoy fireworks on the river. It’s in the wide eyes of children as they leave the aquarium. It is the outstanding healthcare that our community receives at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Riverhead’s goodness is in the simplicity of a farm field during harvest season, and grapes as they become ready to pick, it’s reflected in the glory of the lights of the Suffolk Theater and Grangebel Park as arts in the park lights up the night.

Our goodness comes in the knowledge that nothing big gets accomplished alone. I want to specifically thank our staff of professionals in Town Hall for their dedication and professionalism, I want to thank my staff: John, May, and Patrick who are always accessible and keep my office running and I want to thank my fellow board members: Tim Hubbard, Catherine Kent and Jodi Giglio. And I want to especially recognize Councilman Jim Wooten, who will be leaving this board at the end of the year, I want to thank Jim for a career dedicated to Riverhead and for putting politics aside and putting Riverhead first.

This evening, and every day of our lives, we must never forget, we are the stewards of this moment in time, to build a Riverhead better than we found it, and to contribute to our community in all the ways the big and the small.

We are here to serve others, to do good and to keep good going.”