New Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith shared some bad news about the town’s financial state and crumbling infrastructure during her first State of the Town Address Tuesday evening, but pledged to work hard to turn the town around during her time in office.
Ms. Jens-Smith gave the talk before a packed crowd of regional elected officials, town employees and residents at town hall — a change of venue for the event, which had previously been held by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce at local restaurants.
When she took office in January, Ms. Jens-Smith said she was surprised by the depth of the town’s troubles.
Her predecessor, four-term supervisor Sean Walter, “began his tenure with $13 million in the bank, and I began mine with just over $2 million,” she said, referring to the town’s general reserve, rainy-day fund.
“I also anticipated some infrastructure issues, but I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which upkeep and maintenance had been ignored in this town,” she said. “In order to balance the budget, Mr. Walter kicked the can down the road, leaving a legacy of peeling paint, crumbling infrastructure, computer systems and software long in need of upgrading and a budget that was unable to address these issues.”
“We have town buildings plagued with leaks and mold, offices with air conditioning not working well or not working at all. I’m sure a few of you are also sitting in a few chairs that are also in need of some repair.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said some of the town’s computer software is like “driving down the information superhighway in a Ford Pinto,” referring to the famous 1970s-vintage car whose gas tank design often caused explosions on impact.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said the one bright spot in the town’s infrastructure is its newly renovated, state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, but the town has incurred “massive debt” to build the plant.
One of her top priorities, she said, is to find a new home for the town’s justice court, currently crammed into a corner of the town’s police station, behind town hall on Howell Avenue.
She also pledged to work with the town’s Police Benevolent Association on a new contract for the police department, which has been working without a contract for two-and-a-half years.
“I know this sounds bad,” she said. “I guess you can imagine how I felt when I walked in and discovered this. But since then, we’ve been working hard to change the tide.
Ms. Jens-Smith pledged her support for the police department, including for a new program providing Spanish language support, and for a school resource officer to patrol Riverhead High School, as well as for gang prevention programs.
Ms. Jens-Smith, the former president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education, also touted new shared services agreements, allowing Riverhead to band together with other towns to get bulk discounts on items ranging from upgraded phone systems to LED street lights and energy efficiency measures in town buildings.
Ms. Jens-Smith said that, while the big box stores on Route 58 have become a regional shopping destination, she wants Riverhead to be proactive in its policy measures in light of the increase in online shopping, coming up with alternative uses and tenants for Route 58 buildings if large retailers vacate the spaces.
As she did during her campaign last year, Ms. Jens-Smith pledged to support local businesses working to revitalize downtown Riverhead, which she said should be “the heartbeat” of town.
She said the town is working creatively and proactively on better signage, on requiring owners of empty storefronts to make the facades of their buildings attractive, and on form-based zoning that will require new buildings to conform to the existing historic character of the area.
She said the town also recently received a grant to come up with a parking plan downtown, and she’s in talks with the MTA about renovating the Riverhead Long Island Rail Road station and bringing more trains here.
The potential sale of much of the land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, the 2,300-acre former Grumman plant, has been a huge part of Ms. Jens-Smith’s first three months in office. The contract to sell the property to a new company known as Calverton Aviation and Technology was negotiated by her predecessor, Mr. Walter, who scheduled a public hearing on whether CAT was qualified and eligible to purchase the property for early in the new year.
“I did not negotiate the contract of agreement for the sale of EPCAL, which is the largest undeveloped industrial property in the northeast, but I am charged with conducting the qualified and eligible hearing to vet the purchaser,” said Ms. Jens-Smith.
“The only way we can deem them qualified and eligible is to be solidly assured that they will carry out the intended development plan, which includes restoring the runways, building out one million square feet of commercial and industrial space within 5 years, and to show us that they can create real, sustainable jobs in the aviation and technology industries,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith said she’s committed to working with Island Fabrications, an existing tenant at EPCAL, in finding ways to expand in town, and she’s worked to help move forward the plan for Peconic Care, a new rehabilitation center that has been trying to open in Riverhead for nearly a decade, which she said will “create high-paying jobs for Riverhead residents.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said her administration “wants the entire business community to know we are 100 percent committed to Riverhead being business-friendly,” and added that she has an open-door policy and evening office hours for both business owners and anyone in the community to come in and discuss their concerns.
“We’re all happy to help you. It’s why we are here,” she said. “We are all caretakers of this town. We need to work together to protect the environment, farmland and quality of life. Riverhead and I both have a lot of challenges ahead of us. I will work hard to do my part to guide Riverhead to a prosperous and successful future.”