Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith delivered her first “State of the Town” speech yesterday before a standing-room only crowd in the Riverhead Town Hall meeting room.
Yesterday marked the new supervisor’s 100th day in office and she used the occasion to outline conditions she found when she settled into the corner office as well as her vision for correcting problems and moving the town forward.
Jens-Smith struck some familiar themes in the speech, criticizing her predecessor’s fiscal policies as she had during her campaign for office last year.
“I knew as I took office, that there were some concerns with the town’s financial stability. But I didn’t know just how bad our finances were,” Jens-Smith said.
She said former supervisor Sean Walter spent down the town’s “rainy day fund” to balance his annual budgets and suppress property tax increases, reducing the general reserve from $13 million to just over $2 million. The reserve’s depletion was cited by Moody’s when it downgraded the town’s bond rating in 2015 — when the reserve was $5 million, which Moody’s then described as “narrow.”
Jens-Smith said her predecessor made “no effort to increase revenue” and “effectively kicked the can down the road, leaving a legacy of peeling paint, crumbling infrastructure, computer systems and software long in need of upgrading and a budget unable to address these issues.”
She recited a litany of alleged neglects: lapsed contracts with the police unions; “buildings plagued with leaks and mold” and faulty or nonfunctioning heat and air conditioning systems; town vehicles, including police vehicles, long past their useful life; computers and software akin to “driving a Ford Pinto down the information super-highway”; and an overcrowded police and town court complex.
“While I know this sounds bad,” Jens-Smith said, “I’m sure you can imagine how I felt when I walked in and discovered all this.”
The new supervisor said she has been “working hard to change the tide” and outlined the initiatives implemented since Jan. 1:
- requiring a fiscal impact statement for all town programs, projects and legislation
- opening negotiations with the police unions
- developing a Spanish language support program
- working with the school district to place a school resource officer on site at Riverhead High School
- working with the school district and sheriff’s office on gang prevention and the opioid crisis
- improving communication, efficiency and productivity by deploying modern computer software and a modern, less expensive phone system
- clarifying town code provisions to make enforcement more feasible and successful
- expanding the code enforcement staff
- joining in the county’s shared services program to save money
“Doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ because they’ve always been done that way is no reason to stay with a program, method or approach,” Jens-Smith said. “We’re looking at saving money. We’re looking at saving time. We’re looking at putting common sense to work.”
The supervisor said she wants business owners and residents to know “my door is always open to listen and assist whenever possible.”
Downtown, she said, “should be the heartbeat of Riverhead” and spoke of efforts to include marketing downtown to new businesses, adding wayfaring signs to help visitors find attractions and parking, enforcing a new law regarding the appearance of vacant storefronts and establishing “form-based zoning to assure future building conforms to Main Street’s existing historic character.”
The board has established a new downtown revitalization committee and is soliciting members with expertise in business, finance and marketing, she said.
Jens-Smith briefly addressed the EPCAL sale to Calverton Aviation and Technology, currently under scrutiny by the town board to determine whether it is a “qualified and eligible” sponsor as required by state law.
She called the the sale of EPCAL “one of my biggest challenges coming in to office,” noting that the prior town board approved the contract of sale at its last meeting of 2017.
“But I am charged with conducting a qualified and eligible hearing to vet the purchaser,” she said.
“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 to show us that they can create real, sustainable jobs in the aviation and technology industries.”
Jens-Smith said the town is “stepping up to put 21st century technology to use,” live-streaming town board, planning board and ZBA meetings on the cable government access channel and the town’s website, where recordings of the meetings will also be uploaded for viewing on demand. IDA meetings will soon be broadcast and webcast, she said.
The town has also “plugged in” to social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the supervisor said.
Town board members had a mixed reaction to the new supervisor’s first “state of the town” speech.
Councilman James Wooten, a 10-year incumbent and the board’s longest-serving member, said he did not fault the former supervisor for his pay-as-you-go philosophy that he acknowledged often meant not being able to spend money on needed infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
“Sean’s approach was such a stark contrast to Phil’s,” said Wooten, a Republican who served under both Walter, a Republican and Phil Cardinale, a Democrat who served three terms as supervisor with a Republican-controlled board — like Jens-Smith, a Democrat serving with a Republican majority.
Cardinale’s approach was to bond “anything you want,” Wooten said. “There was no sustainability as far as the tax base to even sustain a simple operating budget – there were so many one-shot deals that helped to fill in all those holes,” he said. However, he said, that was a common feature of town budgets going back two decades.
“Sean was trying to get our spending in line,” Wooten said. “Maybe at times he was a little too stingy.”
Walter was always “brutally honest in his budgets,” Wooten said. “He’d say straight out we don’t have the money.” Drawing down the reserve was needed to set things right without huge property tax increases, Wooten said. Now that it has a balanced budget, the town has begun putting money back into the reserve.
Councilwoman Catherine Kent, a Democrat who ran with Jens-Smith last year, said she was proud of the new supervisor’s speech, which she said was inspirational.
“It gets us fired up. We’re looking to the future,” she said. “There are good things on the horizon.”
Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard said he thought the supervisor did a good job but he’d like to hear more specifics.
“I’d like to see more focus on what she’s going to do rather than what wasn’t done by the former supervisor,” Hubbard said.
“She’s got some really good ideas. I think that we as a board are really excited about some of them and excited about working togehter to bring them to fruition,” he said.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio did not return a call or text seeking comment.
The Jens-Smith speech yesterday evening was the first time in memory a town supervisor gave the annual address at town hall and in an open public forum. For many years, Riverhead supervisors have given their state of the town speech to a joint dinner meeting of the Riverhead Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs. The meetings, held at local restaurants, were always open to the public beyond club members and their guests. But they were never widely attended.
Jens-Smith invited the public to attend yesterday’s speech, which was also broadcast live on the cable public access channel and livestreamed on the town’s website.
The speech drew a crowd of Jens-Smith’s supporters, business owners, civic group leaders and members of the general public, as well as staff members representing elected officials at other levels of government. County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) formally introduced the supervisor before she took the podium set up in the center of the board dais, where the rest of the town board was assembled.
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