Gwen Mack, who manages the Church of the Harvest food pantry in Riverhead challenged the Riverhead Town Board's allocation of CARES Act funding during the Aug. 2 town board meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis.

A resolution authorizing payment of coronavirus relief funds to community organizations was tabled by the town board Tuesday after the operator of the Church of the Harvest food pantry argued the town was giving a disproportionate amount of money to the Long Island Aquarium.

The resolution states that $75,000 in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020, were to be distributed to four organizations and the Town of Riverhead. 

The aquarium was to receive $20,000, while three other organizations — the Church of the Harvest, East End Arts and Stop the Violence were to receive $5,000 each, according to the fiscal impact statement attached to the resolution, which did not itself contain a breakdown of the allocation of funding. The town was to receive $40,000, according to the document.

“My question is: Why is the aquarium getting more money than the pantry?“ asked Gwen Mack, who manages the Church of the Harvest food pantry. “Because I have not closed but two weeks during the [pandemic]. I want to know why it is not divided equally? Or I should get as much as the aquarium,” she said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar referred Mack to Community Development Administrator Dawn Thomas, who Aguiar said decided how the funds were allocated, not the town board. Thomas was not in the building during the meeting and could not answer Mack’s question immediately.

“How do you say one entity is more important than another one?” Mack said. “I’m feeding the poor and you are only going to give me $5,000? That does not make sense, I’m sorry.”  

Mack said she has correspondence with Thomas and was told prior to the meeting that the board was going to make the decision on the funds. Thomas said the same thing during the hearing on the funds July 7, which Mack attended. Nobody on the town board, however, had brought up the contents of the resolution during last week’s work session. Mack asked the board to table the resolution until she can talk to Thomas about the amount. 

Councilwoman Catherine Kent agreed to table the resolution. “We didn’t actually have a discussion as a board as to how much money each group is getting and I think that should have been a board decision and I also believe that should have been a public discussion,” Kent said.

“I saw the resolution and assumed the board had worked on it,” Aguilar said.

“Well, then can I depend on somebody to second it to be tabled?” Mack asked. 

This received pushback from the supervisor. “You can’t take a vote, we can’t take a vote on a resolution and have the public determine what our vote is going to be. That is inappropriate,” Aguiar said.

“I’m not saying that, I’m saying can somebody table it so there can be more discussion on this?” Mack said.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt interrupted, committing to second the motion tabling the resolution. ”Gwen, I can assure you as a Island Harvest board member, and you as an agency member of Island Harvest, that if it gets moved to table I will second,” he said.

Aguiar told RiverheadLOCAL Thursday the resolution will be discussed further at next week’s work session.

In phone interview Wednesday, Thomas said Mack had submitted the application for this wave of funding by requesting $5,000 to $10,000.

This is not the first time Mack has been caught up in controversy with grant funds. In 2019, Mack argued with the town board for the pantry to be included in the annual application for CDBG funding. That request was ultimately denied because Thomas argued the addition of the funds might have ruined other organization’s chances at receiving the grant. The town board was able to get funds for Mack separate from CDBG last year and earlier this year, Thomas said.

“The town appreciates the work of the Church of the Harvest and that is why the town board recently granted them $10,000,” Thomas said. “We recommended that the town board grant another $5,000 in funding to support their work.”

Thomas said the aquarium had asked for a larger amount due to expenses accrued during their shutdown last year caused by the coronavirus. The aquarium still had to care for their animals while revenue was halted by their closure and to cover large costs related to personal protective equipment. 

Thomas also said the $40,000 the town receives from the resolution will reimburse them for recent improvements to the Riverhead Senior Center, including a new bus fleet.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com