Thursday, February 09, 2006

We're stuck in the 70s

1979 — the last time Riverhead Town did a comprehensive update of its property tax assessments. Twenty-seven years ago. Whoa! That's almost three decades! It's startling, and not because I'm a reval junkie. No, it takes my breath away just to think that my memory stretches that far back. Worse still, that long ago I was actually an adult. Well, more or less. 1979 was a watershed year for me — the year I graduated from college, moved out of my parents' home, and started law school at NYU. I'm not sure if I knew what a property tax assessment was in 1979, much less had an opinion about it. My mind was occupied with more important things, like who was I anyway and what did I want to be when I grew up. (Questions that took nearly as long to answer as the town has taken to update its tax rolls.)

In 1979, I found escape from the study of contract and tort law playing a brand-new arcade game called Asteroids in a little pub on MacDougal Street, competing against my 1L classmates. I did well, something my kids find hard to believe today, given the way I fumble with the controls of their Game Cube. How much have things changed since 1979? Here's a little collection of facts and trivia from 1979. It was a happening time.

The Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, after the Shah fled to Egypt. An "energy crisis" took place in the U.S. after OPEC boosted oil prices 50% over the course of the year. Gas prices hit an all-time high, actually breaking the $1 mark for the first time on Memorial Day weekend in 1979. Locally, gas shortages were handled by rationing and limits on purchases.

Sixty-six Americans were taken hostage in Iran, marking the beginning of a hostage crisis that would last 444 days, make Ted Koppel a household name, and the end of the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq. Margaret Thatcher was elected the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. Jamesport Fire Deparment accepted its first female firefighter.

There was an accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, releasing radiation into the atmosphere. LILCO still insisted it would open its $2 billion nuclear power plant in Shoreham the next year and build two more on the Sound in Jamesport, to boot. The Riverhead Town Board supported the Jamesport plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved it, too. Other plans didn't get support, like a plan to build an airport off Sound Avenue and Northville Turnpike, and a plan to build a cross-Sound bridge from Riverhead or Wading River to Connecticut.

1979 was the year the Peconic County movement really gathered steam. It was also the year an unknown school teacher from Wading River, Joe Janoski, ousted Riverhead native Allen Smith from the supervisor's office. The supervisor's annual salary was then $28,000.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average high mark was 907 points in 1979. Inflation was a ravaging 13.3%. The prime lending rate was 15.75%. Unemployment was over 6%. The federal government approved a $1.5 billion bailout for Chrysler Corporation. Federal spending was $504.03 billion and federal debt was $829.5 billion. The Riverhead school district operating budget was $13.5 million.

A first-class stamp cost 15 cents. A pound of coffee was just $1.79. Riverhead had not a single vineyard. Its principal crops were potatoes and cauliflower. A man could buy a three-piece suit at Swezey's for $59.99.

1979 was also the year of the release of the first computer spreadsheet program available for personal computers, Visicalc. But personal computers were a rare thing, as the IBM PC was still in the future.

The year's hit movies were Alien, 10, The China Syndrome, Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now. And movies were still being shown at the Suffolk Theatre.

Music — well it was a dark era in music as far as I was concerned. Disco ruled.

"60 Minutes" was America's favorite TV show. L.I. Cablevision brought Showtime to cable TV here, with a great deal of fanfare, including even a preview for the Town Board at Cablevision's Riverhead office.

And the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl. (Number XIV.)

A three-bedroom, two-bath house in Riverhead rented for $350 per month. A three-bedroom Cape Cod here listed for $42,000, while a ranch in Wading River on a quarter-acre listed for $49,500. A half-acre waterview lot in Jamesport was selling for $10,000. A Reeves Park bungalow — also water view — was listed at $25,500. A 100-foot wooded Soundfront building lot went for $55,000, and 59 acres on Main Road in Aquebogue, with a renovated two-story colonial house and two barns (zoned agriculture and business) was listed at $155,000.

See why our equalization rate is around 13% today? Those prices have gone the way of the eight-track tape player I used to own. There's no good reason why Riverhead's tax assessments shouldn't catch up with the 21st century.

Copyright 2006 Times/Review Newspapers