The newest director of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency — an outspoken critic of the agency whose appointment in February touched off controversy in town hall — may soon be off that board.
Larry Simms has sold his house in South Jamesport and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Simms said in a phone interview last week he still owns property in the Town of Riverhead and is willing to continue to serve on the board.
But counsel to the Riverhead IDA has advised the board that is not possible.
In a July 5 letter to IDA chairman Tom Cruso, attorney Richard Ehlers said state law requires members of the IDA board to live within the Town of Riverhead.
“A failure to comply with the residency requirement creates a vacancy in the office under…the New York Public Officers Law,” Ehlers wrote.
Simms, in a July 25 email to Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard, offered to tender his resignation immediately should they ask him to. There would be no need for a town board vote, Simms wrote. But he assured the Jens-Smith and Hubbard he would continue to serve if they preferred.
In a letter also written on July 25, addressed to Cruso and Ehlers, Simms challenged the eligibility of all members of the IDA board to serve. He argued that state law requires the board members to live in the town, but the Riverhead IDA makes decisions that affect taxing districts that extend outside the Town of Riverhead, citing as examples the school district and the Manorville Fire District.
“With every decision the IDA makes and every tax abatement granted, we reach beyond ‘the corporate limits’ of the Town of Riverhead and operate in areas outside our purview,” Simms wrote in the letter to Cruso and Ehlers. Thus, he reasoned, “it appears each member of the Riverhead IDA, including its chair, is in violation of IDA residency requirements.”
“If the agency does not exempt or otherwise shield neighboring town residents from the impact of IDA actions, then the law requires that all public officers serving the IDA be domiciled in each of the affected towns…which is clearly impossible,” Simms wrote.
“As the agency and its governing laws are presently constituted, no one is qualified to serve on its board,” he wrote.
Simms suggested the IDA may have to suspend operations until this question is definitively answered, because the fact that the IDA can abate property taxes outside the corporate limits of the Town of Riverhead may “call into question any or all past decisions the IDA has made, including abatements previously awarded,” Simms wrote.
The IDA is also empowered to grant other relief that extends beyond the town’s borders, such as state mortgage and sales tax exemptions.
A copy of Simms’ letter to Jens-Smith and Hubbard, which included copies of his letter to Cruso and Ehlers as well as Ehler’s opinion letter to Cruso, were filed with the town clerk’s office and obtained by RiverheadLOCAL by a Freedom of Information Law request.
Simms also argues that, though the state Public Officers Law provision cited by Ehlers, which states that a change in residency creates a vacancy as a matter of law, a contradictory provision in the state General Municipal Law states that an IDA director shall serve until a replacement director is appointed. Another provision of the General Municipal Law article pertaining specifically to IDAs states that it supersedes any inconsistent provisions of any other law.
The town board split 3-2, with council members James Wooten and Jodi Giglio dissenting, when it appointed Simms to the IDA board on April 3. Simms filled a vacancy created by the resignation in February of former IDA board member Elias Kalogeras, who moved to Florida.
Jens-Smith said the town board would consult with town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz about the issues raised by Simms. She deferred comment on whether she would ask Simms to step aside.
This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.