Endorsement: Laura Jens-Smith for Riverhead Town Supervisor

10/31/2019 6:00 AM |

Reelection campaigns begin quickly in Riverhead Town, where the supervisor serves two-year terms. 

In November 2017, residents voted Laura Jens-Smith in as the town’s first female supervisor. In the 22 months since she took office, Ms. Jens-Smith, 56, of Laurel has done an admirable job leading the town and deserves a second term to continue what she’s started.

The issues facing Riverhead Town — the sale of land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, downtown Riverhead’s development, the future of Route 58 — remain in the limelight. At this time two years ago, billionaire John Catsimatidis appeared to be the lifeline coming to rescue Luminati Aerospace in its pursuit of the EPCAL land. That agreement fell apart quickly after the election and we soon learned about Calverton Aviation & Technology and Triple Five Group.

Ms. Jens-Smith’s skepticism about the Luminati deal was a key reason we endorsed her in 2017 and we still believe her leadership will be key as the current deal with CAT progresses. Ms. Jens-Smith voted against finding CAT qualified and eligible. That vote ultimately passed 3-2 along party lines, so the focus now must be making sure CAT delivers on its promises.

Ms. Jens-Smith has pointed to several accomplishments in her first term. The town, at the close of the 2018 budget year, had reduced its outstanding debt by $7.2 million. She has stated she believes in “pragmatic conservative budget practices” and has presented another budget for 2020 that stays within the state tax cap.

Ms. Jens-Smith voted in favor of a “pattern book” to guide future zoning decisions in downtown Riverhead. That came at the recommendation of the downtown revitalization committee. The pattern book will be tied to an update of the town’s master plan, last updated in 2003, which will allow the town to reshape its focus for the future.

Ms. Jens-Smith’s opponent, Republican candidate Yvette Aguiar of Riverhead, 60, brings a background in law enforcement and business to her first run for public office. A focus of her campaign centered on overcrowding in Riverhead, which she linked to the Riverhead Central School District’s proposed bond. She opposes the bond and argues that town enforcement of violations for illegal overcrowding would reduce the burden on the school district.

We’ve seen no concrete statistics that link overcrowding and school enrollment. How many students attending Riverhead schools are living in these illegal houses? If all those illegal homes were suddenly eliminated, would that alone be enough to counteract the rise in enrollment? And where would those children go? If they’re in Riverhead, the school system must educate them.

Ms. Aguiar didn’t adequately tackle the complexities of the issue. And the idea that a sudden crackdown on overcrowded homes will eliminate the school district’s need for expansion is a stretch. Certainly lacking in the discussion is a measure of compassion for the children who should supposedly be booted out of the district.

That’s not to say overcrowding isn’t a problem. It is, and Ms. Jens-Smith agrees and has worked toward addressing it; the number of code violations doubled from the previous year. As she pointed out, not every home with several people living in it fits the legal definition of an overcrowded home that warrants violations.

Let’s not forget, the Town Board has operated under a Republican majority for the past decade. To pin all overcrowding issues on Ms. Jens-Smith in the last 22 months is not based in reality. In 2011, we published an editorial urging the Town Board to act on overcrowded homes. The issue long predates Ms. Jens-Smith.

Ms. Aguiar was loose with facts at a debate hosted by the News-Review last week, at one point saying CAT has “trillions of dollars in the bank,” and at another point describing the companies CAT recently brought in seeking to relocate to EPCAL as Fortune 500 companies. While speaking about traffic, she said Southampton had a problem that they recently solved. We’re pretty sure traffic remains problematic on the South Fork.

Several of the issues she’s tried to raise don’t warrant her election to office.

She argued more needs to be done to address flooding in downtown Riverhead. When we reported on downtown flooding in 2016, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, a Republican, noted she had previously sought out a company to provide a temporary barrier the town could use to hold back the tide, but the approach ended up being too costly.

It’s highly doubtful, as Ms. Aguiar suggested, that the Army Corps of Engineers will provide an assessment that leads to grant money. As we reported in 2016, justifying costs could be a challenge. The effort would require cooperation from private businesses. Public funding would need to justify the government’s investment, so businesses would have to show if or how they’ve lost money due to flooding.

Don’t expect the Army Corps to build some sort of levee system downtown. At the end of the day, the flooding simply results in a swamped parking lot a couple of days a year.

Ms. Aguiar also cautioned that Ms. Jens-Smith might sell both the water district and police department to the county, a recycled political issue from 2015, when then-supervisor Sean Walter claimed he would save the Riverhead Police Department from Ms. Giglio, a challenger for supervisor. He cautioned that Ms. Giglio would sell the department to Suffolk County, even as Ms. Giglio adamantly denied it and noted that such a change would require a vote by taxpayers.

Ms. Jens-Smith also adamantly denies she’s listening to offers to sell either department.

Ms. Aguiar pushed for an assisted living facility in downtown Riverhead. An assisted living facility is already proposed for the Calverton Manor property on Route 25 and Manor Road.

One point we can agree with from Ms. Aguiar is the need for greater transparency. The more transparent local government is the better, and there’s certainly room for improvement from the current administration. It’s also easy for newcomers to say they’ll be more transparent, but really, we have no way of knowing.

For Riverhead supervisor, we endorse Ms. Jens-Smith.

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