File photo: Peter Blasl

With summer heat bearing down on the region and the Riverhead Water District facilities being pushed to the limit to keep the public water supply flowing, the district has no superintendent and will soon have a vacancy in the assistant superintendent slot as well.

Superintendent Mark Conklin retired July 2 — though he is staying on as a consultant through September to help out.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Kruger — like Conklin, a longtime water district employee — is running the day-to-day operations of the district. But his time in the assistant superintendent post is limited by law.

The Suffolk County Civil Service Department has certified lists for both the superintendent and assistant superintendent titles, based on the results of recent civil service exams. The current assistant superintendent is not on either list.

Under Civil Service Law, Kruger can’t stay on in the assistant superintendent position after Aug. 6 (two months after the list for that job title was certified.)

He can’t be appointed to succeed Conklin either, since the law requires the town board to hire from the civil service list for superintendent.

The dual vacancies could not have come at a tougher time for the district, which on hot, dry summer days typically pumps 20 million gallons of water for use by district customers, severely taxing its pumps and machinery just to keep the district’s storage tanks full enough to serve its customers.

And to make matters worse, the water district finds itself in the middle of the first dust-up of the 2019 political campaign.

Republican town supervisor candidate Yvette Aguiar is accusing incumbent Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, a Democrat, of working on a back-room deal to sell the Riverhead Water District to the Suffolk County Water Authority.

“We should fight against county acquisition of our water district,” Aguiar says on her campaign website. “This issue lies in waiting behind the Supervisor’s back doors, without transparency or disclosure to the public.”

Jens-Smith called her opponent’s statements “completely untrue and irresponsible.”

“None of that is true,” Jens-Smith said. “She is putting incorrect facts out there to create a political issue and it’s hurtful to our employees. As a supervisor candidate, she has a responsibility to get the facts straight,” Jens-Smith said.

“We’ve put a lot of time and energy into developing a capital plan and budget for the water district. We were awarded a $3 million grant and we’ve bonded out other monies to keep it moving forward. We also added two staff positions to the district.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard, a Republican running on the ticket with Aguiar this fall — and the town board liaison to the water district — agreed with the supervisor.

“We’re committed 100 percent to maintaining the water district. We put together a $23 million package (for capital improvements),” he said.

“Those rumors were floating around months ago. But we’re strongly committed to it,” Hubbard said.

Aguiar said in an interview she has a source inside the Suffolk County Water Authority — whom she said she was not free to name — who tells her that the town and the water authority have had discussions about a sale.

“It’s our town’s greatest infrastructure, our biggest asset, and we should not divest ourselves of it,” Aguiar said.

She said the failure of the town to hire a superintendent — despite Conklin having told the board last fall he wanted to retire this spring — supports her contention that the supervisor is looking to sell the water district to the county water authority. Aguiar said that though the town has interviewed applicants for the superintendent’s position, it did not offer anyone the position — or offered a salary too low to make an offer meaningful.

Also not true, according to both Jens-Smith and Hubbard, who said they offered the job to three people off the civil service list, who all declined, and are currently, to quote Hubbard, “working on a fourth.”

The town is offering a $150,000 annual salary for the superintendent’s position, Jens-Smith said.

Suffolk County Water Authority Chairman Patrick Halpin this week denied that the water authority has had any discussions with the supervisor or any other Riverhead official about acquiring the Riverhead Water District. Nor does the water authority have any interest in acquiring it, Halpin said.

“The Suffolk County Water Authority doesn’t buy water districts any more,” Halpin said. “It may enter into a management agreement at the invitation of a town,” he said, but we absolutely have had no discussions whatsoever with Riverhead.”

But Aguiar contends that even if there haven’t been discussions — contrary to what her source in the water authority told her — if the district is in distress, say, for lack of management personnel or lack of money to make needed improvements, things could change pretty quickly. The town might find itself in a position that leaves it no other choice.

Aguiar said her source told her the water authority even made the Riverhead Water District an offer.

“Not while I’ve been supervisor,” Jens-Smith said, noting that years ago, SCWA made an overture to her predecessor Sean Walter, “who told them to get lost,” Jens-Smith said.

“I’d be happy to answer her questions,” Jens-Smith said of her opponent. “If she paid attention to Town Hall, she’d know we’re working to improved the district facilities and maintain good service to the town,” she said.

Hubbard acknowledged Aguiar had not discussed any of this with him.

What’s worse, Jens-Smith said, is the impact of the candidate’s statements on town employees.

“It upsets people and it’s not fair for them to have to worry about this — or to make them feel they’re not appreciated,” the supervisor said. Water district employees have come to her to ask if they’re going to soon be out of a job, she said. “That’s very stressful — people have families, mortgages. You can’t do that to them just because you need to create a campaign issue,” she said.

“Town employees work so hard and we’ve worked hard together to come up with good collective bargaining agreements,”the supervisor said. “Rumors like this undermine that relationship being built within our town and in the community.”

Aguiar said she believes time will prove her right. She also suspects Jens-Smith is open to the idea of the county taking Riverhead Town into the county police district — another item on the “issues” page of the candidate’s website.

Jens-Smith strongly denies that as well. It’s not something she’d ever even consider, she said. That was a controversial topic in the 2015 campaign, when the Suffolk Police union’s super-PAC pumped nearly $166,000 into advertisements attacking then-incumbent supervisor Sean Walter.

Walter argued that the union was attacking him because his opponent in the primary and the subsequent three-way race in the general election, Jodi Giglio, favored a county takeover of the Riverhead Town Police Department — a charge both the police union president and Giglio vehemently denied.

Correction: This article has been amended to correct a statement that the Suffolk Police union’s super pac “pumped nearly $166,000 into Councilwoman Jodi Giglio’s campaign” for supervisor in 2015. The super pac did not contribute money to Giglio’s campaign. It spent $165,680 in the Riverhead supervisor’s race, according to a campaign finance report the pac filed in December 2015. The money was spent on ads attacking Walter on the internet and radio, on mobile billboards and a slew of mailers. The Suffolk Police PBA president said the union considered Walter “incompetent” and favored Giglio’s election, but said Walter’s allegations that the county police union favored annexing Riverhead Town into the county police district was “an absolute lie.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.