During Southold Town Supervisor's state of the town address, which he presented Tuesday night at Town Hall, the focus was on the town's accomplishments in 2013 -- even in the face of challenges such as Superstorm Sandy.
Russell, who compiled 17 reports from town departments, began by discussing Sandy's impact and commended town staff that manned the emergency operations center.
During the storm, Russell said, the town had to order a mandatory evacuation for the first time in his six years in office. The supervisor thanked the local volunteer fire department members who went door to door to assist in evacuations, performing deep water rescues and extinguishing electrical fires.
In addition, he said, during the storm, six shelters were opened to the public, including two special needs shelters.
The town, Russell said, waived all fees, including brush, after the storm. "We recognize that the community needed to rebuild and make itself whole," he said.
Sandy, Russell said, cost the town approximately $2.6 million, much of which will be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency; receiving the refunds, he added, takes time -- the town has not yet been fully reimbursed for Irene costs, he said.
Looking back on Sandy and Hurricane Irene, Russell said with each event, there are lessons from which the town builds, in order to make response better.
In the future, the hope is to create GIS-based evacuation zone mapping capability to visually assist residents. During Sandy, the town used tabular listings and fire department volunteers went door to door on a street by street basis. After the storm, mapping of storm surge areas was done to compile a good foundation of information, he said.
Also in the future, Russell said the town is looking to partner with community groups to mann shelters during a storm; one problem during Sandy was a lack of volunteers. Some community groups, he said, have stepped forward.
Other issues to consider for future storms include the need for showers at town facilities to help residents without power; generators at all shelters; and ways to prevent fuel shortages that were present during Sandy.
Russell thanked all police, town staff, volunteers and others for their work during Sandy.
Turning to the town's financial landscape, Russell said, "From a fiscal perspective, Southold Town is in very good standing." Despite difficult economic times, the town has maintained its "stellar" AAA bond rating, he said.
The rating has been maintained thorugh adherence to debt management policy, fund balance policy, amendment to and enforcement of the town's procurement policy, and the elimination of three full-time positions through attrition -- the town's policy is to eliminate by attrition, he said -- in 2012. And, with the fuel managment system fully operational, cost reductions will be seen, he said.
The solid waste district recorded its highest revenue ever in a fiscal year, of nearly $2 million, Russell said. Other revenue was received through recyclables and a new e-waste program.
"The town's fiscal managment produced a fund balance that greatly exceeded original estimates," Russell said. The general fund balance was estimated to be a bit over $6.9 million for 2012, with a part town balance estimated at $199,000. When books were closed, the balance for the whole town budget was $7.6 million, with $688,000 for the part-town budget.
"That means we exceeded estimates by $1.12 million," Russell said. "That's good news, but it's peppered with bad news. THe town still has $58 million in outstanding debt."
While the debt is "well-managed," the supervisor said the town "cannot and will not expand debt service for government."
He added, "Times are still tough. The economy is on really shaky ground. Real estate is not robust or prosperous as it was six or seven years ago."
The supervisor also discussed the comprehensive master plan update progress, zoning for Plum Island which has been drafted and is expected to be adopted in 2013, the preservation of 142 acres in 2012, of which 60 was for open space and 79 acres were farmland.
Russell discussed stormwater management and the deer harvest program, through which 535 deer have been culled from the herd, with over 12,000 pounds of healthy venison donated to Long Island charitable food networks.
The supervisor said he has met with New York State Senator Ken LaValle and New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele to ask that state hunting guidelines be looked at, with an eye toward creating guidelines more amenable to towns, possibly waiving or easing hunting restrictions to make harvests more successful.
The town, Russell said, also hosted a tick task force meeting to focus on an epidemic of tick-borne diseases. "This is one of our largest health risks and crises and needs action sooner than later," the supervisor said.
Looking ahead, the supervisor said recreational needs will be spotlighted, with a "huge demand" in Southold for parks, playgrounds, and ballfields.
Discussing public safety, Russell was somber. "The lessons of Newtown have shown us that even idyllic towns suffer tragedies," he said. Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, he said, has met with school boards to develop plans of action for Southold Town.
Russell also addressed missing Peconic teen Ashley Murray and said the town wlll do whatever necessary to bring her home safely.
A new capital communications project is underway, Russell said, to create intercommunications between the fire districts and police department for reliable communication during storms.
The town, Russell said, relies heavily on public input and will continue to host hamlet-based meetings and mobile town board meetings to make them accessible to the public.
Other news included the creation of an ecomonic advisory council, and a Buy Local campaign that's slated to kick off in the spring. Workshops will be held in conjunction with the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development; a youth job fair will be held.
"We recognize that the future of Southold Town will require a critical mass of people," Russell said. "We have seen a decline and we need to do something to provide meaningful employment for young people."
Also in the year ahead, Russell said the town is poised to pass special events legislation that will factor in concerns expressed by wineries and residents.
A leash law is also slated for a vote that reflects and balances the needs of both dog owners and residents who want to enjoy the beach and other public spaces, Russell said.
"It's a balancing act," he said.
With no questions from the audience, Russell concluded his address and thanked the hardworking staff of Southold Town.