“If you like something, I did it. If you don’t like it, Phil did it.”
That was the lighthearted lead-in to an otherwise serious first State of the Town address delivered by Riverhead’s new supervisor, Sean Walter last night at the Birchwood in Polish Town.
In the speech, which lasted about 20 minutes, Walter his “vision of what this town can be,” focusing on three broad themes: downtown revitalization, fiscal stabilization, and the preservation of open space and farmland to protect the town’s rural character. See video of the full speech.
Walter said fiscal problems he discovered upon taking office are not just the result of the recent recession. They are, he said, “systemic.”
“The fact of the matter is, we spend more than we take in,” Walter said, “and we have limped along by using one-shot measures to close the budget gap.” The supervisor told the audience that “Riverhead is consistently $3.5 million in the hole” and will be $4.5 million “in the hole in the 2011 budget.” The deficit, he warned would grow to $6 million after that unless measures are taken to control spending.
[Walter has dedicated the agenda of today’s work session to a detailed discussion of the town’s fiscal condition. Come back to RiverheadLOCAL tonight for coverage of this afternoon’s work session discussions.]
“Clearly something has to give,” Walter said. “We can’t run our town on a live today, pay tomorrow mentality.”
In addition to mandatory across-the-board spending cuts and an immediate hiring freeze, the supervisor said he plans to re-evaluate the budget in June.
“If our spending is not on track, if the financial situation worsens, I’m going to impound the budget the way Supervisor Joe Janoski did in 1990.”
But the town “can never save our way to financial prosperity,” Walter said. Raising revenue is crucial and redevelopment of EPCAL and downtown to bring new tax base to the town will be a key goal of his administration. He promised a decision on the Riverhead Resorts contract soon, saying the town needs to determine “whether they can close and how much they can pay.”
Work on the rail spur at EPCAL, which he said will begin this summer, will promote redevelopment of the site to help create good-paying clean jobs and new tax base, he said. Walter called for upgrading the infrastructure of the Riverhead Water District will support development efforts and structuring its rates to a more business-like model.
He also called for the creation of a farmland land bank as a way to finance future farmland preservation purchases. “The town has done a great job [preserving farmland] but we’re out of money,” Walter said. “We have exhausted all future revenues under the Peconic Bay transfer tax. It’s time to think outside the box.” A land bank would allow developers to pay fees to obtain increased development densities in designated receiving areas, he said, and allow the town to build up a fund with which to acquire and preserve farmland.
“So where are we going to take this town? The Town Board is united in its belief that we need to expand the tax base. We’re united in the belief that we’re going to revitalize downtown. We know we’re going to develop clean jobs at EPCAL. We know we’re going to preserve the rural character of this town while intelligently growing it. We need to provide the best government we can for as low cost as we can. And we need to work diligently for our people and serve them honestly,” the supervisor said.
He closed his speech quoting from the historian David McCullough, who wrote about a conversation between John Adams in the last days of his life and the young Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I would to God that there were more ambition in this country,” Emerson recalled Adams saying. But by ambition I mean ambition of the lawful kind, to excel.”
Calling on Riverhead to have “the old noble ambition to excel,” Walter said, “This town is going to excel. We have to.”
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