The Riverhead Town Board meeting room was packed on April 8 to hear Town Supervisor Laura-Jens Smith — roughly 60 weeks into her first term — deliver a “keep the good going” themed State of the Town address. She highlighted two police contracts, a point system for identifying blighted properties, a promise to hold accountable the company in contract to purchase EPCAL, an update to 2003’s Master Plan, an $800,000 addition to reserve funds Jens-Smith said were depleted nearly $12 million during her predecessor’s decade in office, as well as a conservative fiscal budget coming in at $1.2 million less than last year.
“We are on the right path,” she said. “We are creating good every day and it’s up to us in this next year to keep that good going.”
On the Riverhead Police Department, Jens-Smith was “happy to say this administration fulfilled our promise by successfully negotiating two separate contracts for our police officers and, in doing so, broke the long log jam that kept our police department working without a contract,” said Jens-Smith. “Most important, we did it in a way that both respected those who go to work daily to protect and serve us, and you, the taxpayers of our great town. Our new contract with the PBA asks its members to contribute 15 percent toward their healthcare, cutting the cost of government and bringing savings to our residents.”
She added the contract offers police cost-of-living adjustments to help them keep ahead of inflation and permits professional advancement. Jens-Smith said she was told contract negotiations were “an unsolvable impasse” which had “languished” under her predecessor, Sean Walter. “I am proud of this agreement,” she said. “It is good for Riverhead and we want to keep that good going.”
Discussing the water district, Jens-Smith said when she came into office she was “sad to discover just how much our water district had been ignored.” She said the district’s capacity to pump was compromised and short-staffed, making Riverhead quicker than other towns to declare water emergencies. “Our infrastructure was in dire need of assistance,” she said. “Provided, water is something we take for granted, but, when I arrived, supply was barely able to keep up with demand.”
She said after making an “honest assessment” of the situation, her administration bought new equipment and increased staff, while also acquiring a $3-million grant to update Riverhead’s water system.
Code enforcement has been vigorously enforced, she said. “We’ve started to crack down on unsafe, out-of-code, uninspected buildings by issuing over 100 violations to buildings that haven’t been inspected in over 10 years,” said the supervisor, adding the town has hired more code enforcement officers to deal with a push to improve quality of life, reducing signage on Route 58, and targeting landlords who “don’t respect Riverhead.”
To help with difficulties enforcing code violations, Jens-Smith said her administration adopted a point system including details like broken windows and overgrown grass to define a blighted property, as well as create a mortgage-in-default registry to keep tabs on buildings in some stage of foreclosure. “Bank and mortgage holders are now required within 10 days to declare their mortgage is in default,” she said. “The banks must inspect those properties to be sure they are secure.” She asked that residents report suspected over-crowded properties to code enforcement officers to help combat blight.
Traffic is always a problem once the season starts. To ease summer traffic issues, Jens-Smith said her administration has partnered with the state to offer shuttle services, worked to revitalize the train station, and met with local business owners, farmers, as well as the Long Island Farm Bureau, to find creative solutions for alleviating traffic and created a “traffic task force” made up of local government officials, police, as well as farm and other community members to drum up ideas.
“We will be adding new traffic control officers to our streets this season to better direct traffic,” she said. “But I have to be honest, it will be a difficult process and there is no magic bullet that will solve our traffic problems.”
The graying of Riverhead is a problem as younger residents leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Jens-Smith listed a town apprenticeship program designed to combat flight of youth from a high-cost, low-opportunity East End known to many as the “brain drain” among her proudest accomplishments for 2018. She said the program requires town-contracted companies to provide apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities to local workers.
“By facilitating apprenticeship, we help our residents gain access to strong, middle class jobs as well as assuring Riverhead is a place our kids can afford to live.”
On technology, she was blunt. “When I came to Town Hall, I was struck by how our technology looked like something out of a bad 1950s sci-fi movie,” said Jens-Smith. “Our computer software and cybersecurity were dangerously out-of-date, vulnerable to attack, and ignored. After years of talk and impasse, my budget finally earmarks the money to upgrade our system.”
Discussing the budget, Jens-Smith was pleased with what has been accomplished so far. “At the close of the 2018 budget year, we have reduced our outstanding debt by $7.2 million,” said the supervisor. “I was able to come in under budget on operating expenses by $1.2 million, allowing us to put $300,000 into a capital improvement fund, something that hasn’t been done in over a decade.”
She said the money will be used to upgrade parks and recreational facilities that have been “underfunded for years.” She said $800,000 will also be added to the reserve fund. “To put that into perspective, my predecessor, during his eight-year-term, depleted the reserve fund by almost $12 million.”
Looking ahead, Jens-Smith discussed other Riverhead concerns.
“An issue that has now entered the dialogue that deserves all of our attention is the updating of our town’s Master Plan, which has gone unaddressed for the last 16 years,” she said. “In 2019, we need to take a look to our future and decide what kind of town we want to be. Will we have the fortitude needed to preserve our open space, our rural character and history, or will we knuckle under the unconstrained development?”
She said the current master plan is based in development of “big box stores” and “in this day of Amazon, we can’t tie our destiny to destination retail.” Jens-Smith said her plan is to stay true to Riverhead’s farming heritage, preserve open space, and fend off tract residential development in favor of smart redevelopment of the downtown area, as well as repurposing of empty retail sites on Route 58 for healthcare, assisted residential communities for seniors, data storage, and shared workspaces.
She said results of a parking study will add more than 60 spaces downtown and noted lighting, as well as cameras and increased foot patrol, will “keep downtown a safe and walkable place.” Beautification and revitalization efforts are also planned for the bus and train stations, but the hottest topic for 2019, according to the supervisor, is keeping a keen eye on EPCAL.
“After decades of deals and misadventure, this past year we entered in a deal for the sale of EPCAL, a deal I was publicly opposed to,” she said. “It is my strong belief the property was worth so much more than what we got. I believe Town Hall crafted a favorable deal for someone they liked.”
She said though the sale to Calverton Aviation and Technology was contracted during the term of the previous administration, it is her responsibility to enforce and implement the transaction to the best of her ability. “CAT has promised a lot to our community — from high-paying jobs in technology, to working-class jobs in construction, and even educational and recreational programs for our children,” said Jens-Smith. “I will be diligent, tenacious, and thorough.”