Pictured Above: Democratic Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and her Republican opponent, Yvette Aguiar at Wednesday’s debate.
Riverhead Town’s struggles bringing life to its downtown, coping with big box stores on Route 58 and trying to sell the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) are perennial problems addressed every election cycle, and this year’s debate has found serious fodder in these issues.
Republican challengers to Democratic Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith’s administration have also dug in their heels about the growing number of kids in the Riverhead Central School District, which recently proposed a major construction bond, arguing that the school’s burgeoning population, much of it Latino, is due to lack of code enforcement of overcrowded housing.
The candidates debated these issues at a forum at the Riverhead Polish Hall Oct. 23 sponsored by the Riverhead News-Review.
Yvette Aguiar, a retired New York City Police Department counterterrorism Detective Sergeant with a Ph.D. in business and a real estate license, is running against Ms. Jens-Smith, a former president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board who is seeking her second term in office.
Ms. Aguiar, who has never run for public office before, touted her skills in budgeting and leadership in the public and private sector.
“I have not seen much progress in our town, and I would like to serve you in a more efficient manner,” she said in her opening statement.
Ms. Jens-Smith, who is just finishing her second year in office, said the town for years “couldn’t look at plans for the future and had no money, but I didn’t take that for an excuse,” adding that she works hard every day on revitalizing downtown and working on a good deal to sell EPCAL.
Ms. Aguiar is stumping on her ten-point plan to expand code enforcement, forming a task force to focus on overcrowded housing, enhanced computer tracking of property conditions and seeking injunctions against property owners in New York State Supreme Court.
Ms. Jens-Smith said the town has doubled the number of code enforcement summonses since she took office, and she meets regularly with an ad hoc task force to address violations. She added that she believes there is public confusion about what constitutes overcrowded housing, pointing out that up to three people are legally allowed to occupy a 200-square-foot bedroom.
“You can have seven to eight people living in a home, and that’s not overcrowding,” she said.
“How can you get to the problem when you can’t identify where the problem begins?” countered Ms. Aguiar. “It’s the homes where there are 10 mattresses in the basement, five mailboxes and six out of state plates, six garbage pails full and six locks…. Get off the bedroom thing. We understand what the code states.”
Ms. Aguiar said she is concerned about the town’s police being taken over by the Suffolk County Police Department and the Riverhead Water District being taken over by the Suffolk County Water Authority.
“If that happens, it will affect response times,” she said of a potential police takeover. “The police officers will need a GPS to get to homes. They won’t understand our community… We have a great police department. Keep it here in Riverhead.”
Ms. Aguiar added that “I know there was a conversation between the current supervisor and individuals from the county discussing a possible takeover” of the water district.
“It is an asset. It’s the purist water on Long Island,” she said.
“Yvette, I know this is something you bring up again and again,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “I have never had a conversation to sell our water district. I am very proud of our water district…. I’m just speechless. I don’t know how to respond to what you’re saying.”
Ms. Jens-Smith added that, when she took office, the town police had been without a contract, but she was able to settle a contract in her first year in office.
Ms. Aguiar scoffed at that notion, saying she believed most of the work on the contract had already been done before Ms. Jens-Smith took office.
“It was given to my opponent and she signed it,” she said of the deal.
“That is absolutely not true,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, adding that she and Councilman Tim Hubbard, a Republican former Riverhead police officer who is also running for re-election this year, “worked diligently with our police officers to come up with a contract that was fair to everyone.”
Ms. Aguiar also attacked Ms. Jens-Smith on the issue of transparency in town government, saying that she’d been kicked out of a press conference at The Suffolk Theater hosted by the supervisor, and adding that she doesn’t believe Ms. Jens-Smith’s campaign literature’s claim that she reduced the town’s debt by $7.2 million.
“I was asked to leave. That was taxpayers’ money at use,” said Ms. Aguiar of the press conference, adding that she believes touting a reduction in debt is equivalent to being proud of paying off credit card bills, which doesn’t increase the amount of cash you have on hand.
“That’s very deceptive. She claimed to reduce the debt simply by paying the bills. I have a problem with that,” she said.
“That was the state lieutenant governor’s walking tour. That was not my press conference,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “I was there as a guest and I don’t know what transpired [with Ms. Aguiar].”
“I’m very proud we reduced the town debt. That’s money we haven’t expended that we’re saving the town,” she said, adding that her predecessor balanced budgets by taking money from reserves, but she has drafted structurally balanced budgets. “I am very proud of what we put forth as far as a budget.”
The candidates were also asked about what they believe their role in the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force should be.
“They do exist. I do understand they have competent members,” said Ms. Aguiar. “I don’t understand where the question was going. What am I going to do, disband them? No.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said she thinks the Anti-Bias Task Force “is a wonderful committee” that has recently been revived after a former town attorney’s wife made racist comments on Facebook several years ago. She added that this year is the first time the group has received a budget for its projects.
“We are a very mixed community. How do we learn to embrace each other? We need to share our cultures together and move forward,” she said.
On the town’s deal in the works to sell much of EPCAL to a firm looking to build an aviation and technology based industrial park there, Ms. Aguiar said she was heartened to see three “very high tech companies, Fortune 500 companies with government contracts,” commit themselves to EPCAL at a recent presentation before the town board. She added that the town is missing out on $4 million per year in real estate taxes and interest on the proposed $40 million sale price by not having signed the deal, money that she said could offset school taxes for residents.
“The companies that came in were not Fortune 500 companies. They were smaller companies with new products,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, adding that only one in 10 of such small companies survive.
Ms. Jens-Smith added that she doesn’t know where Ms. Aguiar and her running mates came up with a figure of $4 million in missed tax revenue, adding that the developers, Calvertion Aviation & Technology (CAT), told the town board at a hearing last year that they would be seeing Industrial Development Agency tax breaks.
“I don’t see any $4 million coming in in the near future,” she said. “It’s being sold for job creation.”
For Town Board
Five candidates are vying for two seats on the town board this year. Only one is an incumbent, Republican Councilman Tim Hubbard, a former Riverhead Police Detective and Riverhead School Board member who administered the town’s Police Athletic League for 22 years. His running mate, sod farmer Frank Beyrodt, a former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau who serves on the board of the Island Harvest food pantry network, ran for a seat on the town board two years ago. Current Republican Councilman Jim Wooten has reached his term limit and can no longer serve on the town board next year.
The Democratic candidates are Diane Tucci, a fourth generation Riverhead resident and self-described relationship builder who runs Main Street Agency, a marketing firm in downtown Riverhead, and has served as the Executive Director of the Riverhead Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce. She is joined by former East End Arts Executive Director Pat Snyder, who was a founding member of the Long Island Science Center, a teacher and the education director of the arts organization.
“There I discovered the power of the arts to be not only a community builder, but an economic driver,” said Ms. Snyder.
William Charles Van Helmond, who briefly ran for town board as a Republican in 2017 before dropping out of the race for personal reasons and then running a write-in campaign, has won the Libertarian Party line on the ballot. Mr. Van Helmond, who runs a lawn care business, lives in Jamesport and serves as the president of the Greater Jamesport Civic Association.
On the proposed EPCAL deal, Mr. Hubbard described a recent presentation by potential tenants of CAT’s industrial park as “very exciting… awesome stuff,” adding that he understands why businessmen aren’t able to attract more on-the-record tenants if they don’t own the property yet. He added that 1,000 acres of protected grassland that former Town Supervisor Sean Walter negotiated to give to CAT “should never have been put in the contract,” adding that he voted against the contract because of that, but he then voted with the board majority that deemed CAT qualified and eligible to buy the property.
“They’re a multi-billion dollar company. I have total faith this is what they’re going to do,” he said. “Working at Tanger does not create a living wage. Our young people are fleeing the town in droves because they can’t afford to live on Long Island. This is a home run. People, I am so excited, and I can’t wait for this to happen.”
Ms. Snyder said that “hope is not a plan,” adding that the town needs to hold on to the 1,000 acres. She said the qualified and eligible hearing “was bogus. They had no financial plan, no business plan… The contract has to be good and that document is not good.” She added that she didn’t understand why Mr. Hubbard would vote no on the contract and then vote yes on the qualified and eligible hearing.
Ms. Tucci said she would have liked to see a little more information from the developers when they brought in the three tech companies last week.
Mr. Van Hemlond said the proposals “sound very interesting,” but “it’s still our property. During this whole procedure, I don’t know how this 1,050 acres got slipped in there.”
Mr. Beyrodt touted the potential for the property to bring in $4 million per year in real estate tax revenue once it is no longer owned by the town.
“At first I was hesitant, but I’m starting to become more excited about it, more optimistic,” he said. “Jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s what we need here. If they can deliver on that, I’m very optimistic about the deal.”
On the town’s overcrowded court and police station complex and the potential move to the old New York State Armory building owned by the town on Route 58, Mr. Van Helmond said he doesn’t know what the answer would be, but “it would certainly have to be researched.” Ms. Snyder said she doesn’t want to see overcrowding, but she doesn’t know enough about the armory to give an intelligent statement about it. Mr. Beyrodt said he believes the town should encourage more economic development, which will bring in tax revenue to pay for needed town services. Ms. Tucci said an upgrade to the facilities is long overdue.
Mr. Hubbard said the town needs to do something “and we need to do something fast.”
He added that he is working with Ms. Jens-Smith on a solution.
“We’re close to something that will work, but it’s not ready for prime time. There are a couple moving parts to it,” he said, adding that he expects to be able to make an announcement shortly.
Two back-to-back questions on whether there is overcrowding in Riverhead and on the role of the town board on “looking out for the interests” of the Latino community led to some starkly conflated answers.
Ms. Snyder said she has talked to people who’ve seen firsthand the dangers of inadequate housing. On helping the Latino community, she said she’s been “talking to some people and hearing an underlying tone of ‘wait a minute. this isn’t fair.’ This is not something that the local government can fix, a culture of dependency that happens and is kind of being encouraged. We need to get kids on an early level instilled with a work ethic to not be dependent on public assistance.”
Ms. Snyder then looked out over the mostly Caucasian audience and said “we have a very diverse community. I love you guys, but looking out here, this is not a diverse community. Everybody should be here listening to this because everybody is a part of it.”
Her last comment was met with some boos from the crowd.
Mr. Hubbard said he’s planning to propose an increased budget for town code enforcement before the town’s 2020 budget is finalized, and that he doesn’t like to see cars parked on front lawns and would like to see rental permits renewed every year so the town can see who is living in houses. When asked if the town should look out for Latino residents, he responded that the town should “look out for all people,” which was met with some applause, adding that a website listed Riverhead as a ‘sanctuary city,’ which doesn’t cooperate with immigration enforcement.
“Riverhead is not a sanctuary city, but that brought droves and droves of people to this town,” he said.
In response to the code enforcement question, Ms. Tucci said “there is a growing population and there’s not enough space for them in the schools…. We can’t put pressure on the school about who is going into the schools.”
“I don’t even want to touch the immigration issue,” she added. “The town has to follow the laws, has to follow the Constitution… If people break the law we can prosecute them, but the town doesn’t get involved in civil matters.
Mr. Van Helmond said that landlords are breaking the laws regarding code enforcement, and said that immigration “is basically dictated from the federal level, but we’re the ones that deal with it day in and day out.”
Mr. Beyrodt said seeing cars on peoples’ front lawns is a pet peeve of his, but “I don’t want this to become an indictment of the Hispanic community.”
“Remember where your family came from. It was probably not here,” he said. “When they were first generation, they were probably in some inadequate housing. This is farming community. Many people are working long days, and they’re good, honest, hardworking people who just happen to be at the bottom of the totem pole right now, just like the Italians, Jews and Irish before them.”