Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith delivered her second “State of the Town” speech last night to a standing-room-only crowd in the town hall meeting room.
Breaking with long-kept tradition in Riverhead, Jens-Smith has given the annual address in an open forum at town hall, rather than to a joint dinner meeting of the Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs, as had been past practice. The meeting room was filled with public officials, business and civic leaders, candidates for office and members of the community.
Speaking at a podium placed at the front of the room, the new supervisor summarized her first year in office and gave the audience a preview of the year ahead.
Jens-Smith pledged to “fight every day” to make sure the buyer in the EPCAL land deal, which she opposed, “lives up to their promises” of of “high-paying jobs in technology … jobs in construction and … educational and recreational programs for our children.”
The buyer, Calverton Aviation and Technology “is not without accomplishment,” Jens-Smith said.
“I will never be adversarial, that’s not in the best interest of our town, but I will be diligent, tenacious and thorough.”
The supervisor called for the town board to undertake a comprehensive update of the town’s master plan, which was was written in 2003. At the last work session, she asked the town board to authorize the issuance of a request for proposals for a consultant to write the updated master plan.
“Sixteen years ago, we planned for a future based in large measure by an increase in the development of big box stores,” Jens-Smith said. “In this age of Amazon, we can’t tie our destiny to destination retail.”
She called for repurposing empty retail sites on Route 58 for healthcare, assisted living, data storage and shared work spaces.
“We can repurpose our retail as an economic engine for our future,” Jens-Smith said.
The supervisor said the town needs “a more thoughtful strategy” for the future of downtown.
“I inherited a piecemeal, haphazard plan for downtown that I have argued is ill-conceived and not well thought-out,” Jens-Smith said.
“I don’t believe downtown should be a litany of faceless five-story buildings,” she said to applause. “We need to keep the character and historic feel of our Main Street.”
The town’s planning efforts “must address the challenges of parking, safety and zoning,” Jens-Smith said.
“We need to thoughtfully address longtime concerns like the flooding that has plagued the back parking lot off the Peconic River,” she said, again drawing applause from the audience.
Riverhead’s downtown “needs to be uniquely us,” she said.
“We cannot be Patchogue. We are not Greenport or Northport, nor Sayville, nor Huntington,” she said. “We are proudly Riverhead, and we have to fight to keep our identity during this revitalization.
The supervisor reviewed her first year in office, citing accomplishments from settling long-expired police union contracts, devising a strategic plan to upgrade the water district, budgeting for and implementing technology upgrades, passing new codes to address blight and “zombie” homes and cracking down on building and fire code violations.
“Our technologies looked like something out of a bad 1950s science fiction movie,” Jens-Smith said. The town’s “computer systems, software and cyber security were dangerously out of date, vulnerable to attack, and ignored,” she said.
“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,” the supervisor said.
“After years of talk and impasse, my budget finally earmarked the money to upgrade our systems.”
Jens-Smith said through conservative fiscal practices, the town was able to come in under budget on operating expenses last year by $1.2 million, allowing the town to put $300,000 into a capital improvement fund, to allow upgrades to town parks and recreation areas, which she said had been underfunded for years.
The supervisor said her budget for the current fiscal year allows for the town to begin replenishing its reserve fund — by a projected $800,000 in 2019 — which she said her predecessor “depleted…by almost $12 million” during his tenure.
“Riverhead deserves a government that is fiscally responsible while improving our services to residents by operating effectively and efficiently,” Jens-Smith said. “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,” she said.
Jens-Smith, a Democrat, is seeking her second two-year term of office in November.
Her Republican opponent Yvette Aguiar was in the audience but declined to respond to the supervisor’s address last night.
“I intend to have an official response, but I have to digest it before commenting,” Aguiar said. “It was very motivational but I’m not too sure about substance.”
Councilman Tim Hubbard, who is also seeking re-election this year, likewise demurred when asked to comment. He said he would comment on Tuesday.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said many of the things the supervisor took credit for were actually the fruits of the labor of the previous town board, including the settlement of the police contract, which she said she and Hubbard negotiated in 2017 but could not be signed until 2018 because the town was awaiting verification by an actuary.
“I have worked hard with my fellow board members over the past nine years to put a plan in place to underspend a very conservative budget and pay down debt,” Giglio said. “The plan worked. The town has a balanced budget.”
Giglio noted that the 2018 budget was proposed by former supervisor Sean Walter and adopted by the prior town board before Jens-Smith took office.
“What I heard last night involves a lot of spending, which results in a lot of taxation,” Giglio said.
Jens-Smith’s speech was also broadcast live on the town’s government access cable TV channel and live streamed on the town website. A video recording will be aired on cable channel 22 and will be posted on the town website for on-demand viewing.
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