Firefighters battle a blaze on Pulaski Street Jan. 25, 2023. Photo: Peter Blasl

This week, volunteer first responders showed again why they are essential to the Riverhead community.

Riverhead Fire Department First Assistant Chief J.R. Renten and Firefighter Frank Greenwood, both town highway department workers on the job fixing sidewalks on Pulaski Street, raced into a burning building to rescue two elderly women.  They dove head-first into danger with just the shirt on their backs — no safety equipment — to save the lives of strangers. They are true heroes and, as they were both quick to point out, just two of many first responders who would put their lives on the line every day of the week to save others.

We’re all so fortunate to have neighbors who are ready, willing and able to serve this community in that way every day, responding to emergencies at all times of day and night, in every type of weather, risking their own lives to do so.

This is a good time to not only say thank you to the highly trained professional men and women, both paid and volunteer, who serve our community as first responders. Most of us have the luxury of taking for granted the service they provide, and most of the time we do take it for granted. 

It’s also a good time to reflect on the looming crisis we face as a community where affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage are increasingly scarce. Unless we find a way to provide local jobs that pay wages that can support a family and homes that young adults can both rent and buy where they can settle down and raise a family, people in that age group will continue to move away from their hometown to distant places where they live and work and pursue the kind of life Americans have cherished for generations. And when they do that, when they move away to find opportunity and affordable living elsewhere, we all lose, personally and as a community. 

We lose volunteer firefighters and EMS. We lose police recruits. We lose teachers and school bus drivers, nurses and other health care workers. We lose the people to work at town jobs to keep our roads in safe condition, our drinking water clean and flowing, our toilets flushing, the stores and restaurants and theaters inspected and safe to enter and enjoy. 

When the people who do those jobs are no longer around to do them, the cost of providing those services increases, taxes go up, and quality of life suffers. A healthy community requires a healthy and diverse mix of residents. 

We can’t afford to lose the next generation. But the risk is real. 

The measures needed to address these problems are many — and the most important ones are beyond the capability of local governments to handle.  They are not to be found in studio and one-bedroom apartments renting for $2,000 a month — tiny, expensive living spaces that don’t allow renters the room to save money to buy a home or to start a family. 

And to be clear, not allowing construction of homes big enough to raise a family is a conscious policy decision by local government officials desperate to avoid “impacts” to the school district by adding to the school-age population. In this context, we hear people talking about “children” and “families” as if they are some sort of disease. 

That’s because property taxes fund too much of the cost of education in New York State. Property taxes are mostly regressive taxes that have more severe impacts on working families. And funding education this way results in great disparities in education quality and opportunities for the next generation — simply put, children in wealthier communities have a better chance to get a better education.

And reliance on property taxes to fund education turns children and families into things a community must avoid to keep property taxes down. We know where that leads, and it’s not a good place. 

Tackling this problem requires sweeping action at both the federal and state levels. The state fully funding foundation aid is a start, but only a start. A greater share of the cost of education must be shifted from local property taxes to state income and other taxes. There is no other way. A lot of politicians are fond of talking about “saving New York” — if they’re serious about it, they should start here.

For its part, local government must show it understands the value of its own workforce. They are the backbone of our town. Proclamations and certificates for heroes like Renten and Greenwood are nice — and appropriate ways to say thank you — but the kind of paper these workers need and deserve is the kind that gets deposited in their bank accounts, not framed and hung on the wall. 

Rank-and-file town workers deserve a livable wage. Riverhead Town’s failure to pay a livable wage has already cost the town government, which has lost employees to other towns and is having a more and more difficult time filling vacant positions. Stop nickeling and diming these workers. The Town Board seems to find money for a myriad of pet projects, favorite (and usually already highly paid) employees and an army of consultants to undertake studies, as well as lawyers to fix costly, self-created hardships (LIPA PILOTs, anyone?). The Town Board must settle Riverhead’s union contracts and pay the workers who keep our town functioning a wage they can live on.  

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