Saturday, February 12, 2005

Town Holds Line On Taxes. Not Quite!

For nearly a decade, the Town of Hempstead touted, “We have held the line on taxes.” In October of 2003, blurring that line a bit, Town Supervisor Kate Murray released her 2004 budget proposal, proudly proclaiming that, for the ninth consecutive year, the Town was “freezing” General Town taxes. This, of course, left most of us with the impression that, once again, our Town, with a hefty $50+ million surplus, was holding that line on taxes. Not so fast, Kate Murray!

Lo and behold, we receive our Statement of Taxes for the 2004 General Levy, and the numbers begin to speak for themselves – making quite a racket, at that. Yes, the General County taxes increased by 8.06%. We expected as much. The “worst run county in America” had to bite the bullet to secure its fiscal house. But the Town of Hempstead?

True, the Town “held the line” on “General Purposes” taxes, actually decreasing the levy by 0.01%. We all felt that tax relief, didn’t we? Just go down the line under Town of Hempstead Taxes, however, and relief is offset by horror.

The tax levy for Town Highway-Repairs/Improvements increased 8.00% from 2003. So, the streets are paved with gold!

Part Town-Building-Zoning-Etc increased 5.98%. Must be the additional resources pumped into Code Enforcement, or the high cost of “etcetera.”

Town Lighting District taxes are up 8.98% from 2003. It does seem so much brighter, especially in the unincorporated areas of the township, doesn’t it?

Town Park District taxes saw an increase of 5.99%, and Town Refuse Disposal District levies jumped 6.00%. If only we didn’t make so much garbage.

Add in the taxes for the Special Districts (which, in reality, fall under the auspices of the Town), and we see a 9.61% increase for Sanitary District 6, a 3.41% increase for the West Hempstead Water District and a 7.10% rise for the West Hempstead Fire District.

So much for “holding the line” on taxes!

Of course, we’ve yet to touch upon School Taxes which, for 2003-04, witnessed a 10.66% increase over the prior year’s levy, and accounted for 58.2% of the property taxes we pay. As the 2004-05 school budget is formulated (a 7% - 10% rise is in the offing), we will likely endure additional increases, made necessary, in great measure, by unfunded State and Federal mandates, including the No Child Left Behind Act, the grand-daddy of all unfunded programs. Then there’s that whopping 18% increase in transportation costs for 2004-05, borne by a public school district which, again under mandate, must absorb the cost of transporting some 1000 students out-of-district to private and parochial schools. Your tax dollars at work!

Property Tax reassessment. The STAR program. State Aid and Sales Tax Credits. No apparent impact on the bottom line. No, the property taxes continue to spiral out of control, with no relief in sight.

And who is to blame? Sure, we can point fingers at our elected officials for talking tax relief yet doing little to replace a regressive property tax with a progressive income tax. After all, it is politically incorrect to so much as mention the word “taxes,” even when it would save most taxpayers hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year. We can fault Washington and Albany for their unfunded mandates, to the tune of billions, translating into millions of dollars which must be raised locally. The Feds have shifted health costs to states and forced states to pay for unfunded mandates for homeland security, election reform, and No Child Left Behind. As a result, states and communities have had no choice but to raise taxes and cut services.

Meanwhile, the State, promising mandate relief, continues to burden localities with the costs of Medicaid, public pensions, child welfare and instructional and non-instructional mandates imposed upon our public schools. Locally, the failure to coordinate and consolidate services, to enforce zoning and building regulations, to contain costs and to eliminate waste add to already top-heavy County and Town budgets, while squandered opportunities for economic growth and revitalization continue to place the tax burden squarely upon the shoulders of the homeowner.

So, who is to blame? Initially, the onus is on those whom we have empowered to represent us, from Washington to Town Hall. They have the means, if not the impetus, to effect positive change. Where, year after year, nothing changes but for the names of those who represent us – if even that – then we can only look to blame ourselves. For the real power, whether it is found in our nation’s Capitol or in the Meeting Pavilion at Town Hall, belongs to the people, and the only weapon of true change in a democratic society is the ballot box. The greatest increase to the bottom line should, by all reason, be in the percentage of eligible voters who turn out to cast their ballots on any given election day!

NOTE: The INCREASE in Town of Hempstead Taxes for 2005 was calculated at 12.8%. So much for "holding the line!"

Friday, February 11, 2005

Levinson Promotes "Adopt-A-Human" Program

Reuters, UPI, AP, FOX NEWS and the Al-Jezerra Network

Assessor Levinson to Save TOHers from “Going to the Dogs”

Hempstead, NY – While Town of Hempstead Supervisor, Kate Murray, travels throughout the township touting her Adopt-A-Pet program, the man who would be the next Supervisor, Harvey B. Levinson, has made his first promise along the campaign trail: If elected, he will initiate an Adopt-A-Human program.

Levinson, who currently serves as Nassau County’s Assessor of Taxes, unveiled his bold initiative before an enthusiastic crowd gathered under a ‘CURB YOUR DOG’ sign along Washington Street in Hempstead. “The Town has been steadily going to the dogs,” quipped Levinson, “and while Kate Murray heralds the Adopt-A-Pet program, seemingly above all else as impacts upon our quality of life as citizens of America’s largest township, deluging (if not deluding) residents with glossy flyers, cuddly TV spots, and gratuitous links to pet adoption centers, we face crisis after crisis which go virtually unaddressed.”

Accompanied by his faithful dog, Champion, Levinson asserted that he had nothing against the pet adoption program, and, in fact, lauded the Supervisor for her efforts on behalf of the stray and the helpless. “To me, nothing is more sad than seeing a homeless dog on the street, with the exception, of course, of seeing homeless families on our streets. The displaced and dispossessed who suffer interminably by reason of an entrenched system of inflated property taxes and a housing stock out of reach, and a populace hoodwinked by ‘Special District’ fiefdoms rife with patronage and a quality of life spiraling into decline. Saving pets from a life of despair is well and good,” said Levinson, “but saving residents from a Town government that, for over a generation, has been going to the dogs, has got to be the Supervisor’s number one priority!”

Meanwhile, reached at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh, a rather large Cheshire cat wrapped around her feet (and Town Clerk, Mark Bonilla at her side), Supervisor Murray denied that her administration was giving short shrift to the issues confronting the township. “When I took office, the Town had a $50 million dollar surplus. Okay, so we spent it all on flyers, brochures, TV ads and salaries for Republicans deposed from County government. So what? We’ve held the line on Town taxes. Pay no attention to those Special District taxes. Sanitation, lighting, parks, sewer, water, fire, and all the rest. They have absolutely nothing to do with the Town of Hempstead. In fact, there are no Special Districts. Its all a grand conspiracy of those left-wing pinko liberal Democrats. Lies, I tell you. Lies!”

Murray, who easily defeated her past opponents for the position of Supervisor (no one, when she was anointed by the Republican County Committee, and Democratic Town Councilwoman, Dorothy Goosby – again, no one) faces an uphill battle against the usually reserved and always strong-willed Levinson. The latest Quinnepeac Poll showed Levinson pulling ahead of both Murray and third-party candidate, Margin of Error. Based on a survey of 1254 registered voters (3 of whom described themselves as “likely to vote”), Levinson garnered 52%, Margin of Error 32%, Murray 9% and holdover candidates from the Iraqi election 7%.

“This will really be a tough race for Murray,” asserted political pundit, author and neocon d’jour Ann Coulter. “For the first time in memory, Republicans are going to have to run an incumbent Supervisor on her record.” County Republicans contend that they will be recording that record in Motown, right after the season finale of American Idol.

To thwart a potential death-blow come November, Republican strategists have borrowed the Bush White House wunderkind, Karl Rove, to run Murray’s (smear) campaign. “I see Harvey Levinson as the devil,” said Rove. “He’s the tax and spend Liberal. The Assessor. He’s BAAAAAD.” Already in the works is a made-for-television ad featuring Swift Boat captains and wolves in sheeps’ clothing. “We know just how stupid Town of Hempstead residents are,” laughed Rove. “Remember Tom Gulotta? We’re going to spend our political capital.”

Clearly worried about possibly losing their stranglehold on Town government, County Republicans are considering asking Murray to resign as Supervisor this spring, appointing in her stead someone who many party regulars consider to be a stronger candidate – George Pataki. “Their favorable ratings are about the same,” said a Town Hall insider on the condition of anonymity. “The only question is, can one carry the other’s coat?”

Levinson, taking the Town Hallers’ panic in stride, suggested that the Republicans heed the words of one of their own, Abraham Lincoln: “’You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’ Bring it on!” To which Levinson’s dog, Champion, resoundingly retorted, “Arf, arf!”

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The State of the Community

The Community Alliance, a quality of life watchdog group, offers the following perspective on the state of our community:

To look around our community – and we include every town, village and hamlet in the County as part and parcel of our “community” – little appears to have changed on the surface. Scratching just beneath that surface, however, we find that significant gains are being made – primarily as a direct result of an effective partnership between community organizations and the various strata of government that represent our villages and hamlets.

While illegal rentals continue to pot-mark our communities, escalating property taxes, reducing services, creating a clear and present danger for their inhabitants and eroding quality of life, action by State, County and Town, in terms of legislative initiatives, has provided the weapons and armor necessary to fight the battles and, yes, win the war.

From increasing fines and penalties to a level that truly stings the illegal landlord, rather than merely imposing a “cost of doing business,” to the recently enacted “Nail & Mail” statute, to the reclassification of multiple family dwellings that masquerade as single family houses as commercial properties for purposes of property tax assessment, the foundation has been laid and the message is beginning to resonate – illegal rental apartments have no place in suburbia and will not be tolerated!

Now, we ask that an additional weapon be called forth onto the battlefield – a Town Ordinance holding real estate brokers, agents and salespeople liable for listing, soliciting and/or showing houses with known or obvious illegal apartments. Let us, in the Town of Hempstead, follow the lead of townships such as North Hempstead and insist on accountability from the community of Realtors as we do from the community at large.

Armed with the weapons of mass deterrence, let us not be afraid or otherwise unwilling to use them. Every statute and ordinance on the books is only as good as the enforcement that shall follow. Enforcement on the building and zoning front, at least for those of us who reside in the unincorporated areas of the township, is the province of Town government. Let us make this the year we enforce the laws already on the books with the same vigor our legislators exert in putting new laws in those books!

One cannot have a meaningful discussion of illegal apartments without acknowledging the flip-side of the coin – the woeful lack of affordable housing on our Long Island. Our housing stock has become out of reach – not only for prospective homeowners, who cannot afford the “asking price,” but for existing homeowners as well, who cannot afford to pay upwards of $10,000 per year in regressive property taxes.

Where open land is available, we quickly build for the highest bidder, leaving aside little if any “scraps” for the middle income wage earner – let alone those who teeter on the brink of being “housing poor.”

Today, we call upon State, County and Town to recognize affordable housing as a critical issue in our communities, and to establish affordable housing empowerment zones within our communities, offering economic incentives to builders and contractors, streamlining the zoning process, and making public building sites now considered for private sale as available not for the building of high six-figure condominiums, but for safe, accessible and affordable housing for those who need it most – our seniors, our workforce and our housing displaced.

Let this be the year when the vision of economic development finally moves from drawing board and talking points to action and result in our communities; where brownfields become green spaces; where abandoned buildings and outdated manufacturing centers are given new lives as affordable housing; where “Main Street” once again becomes the thriving center of neighborhood life; where development and growth are “smart” and planned, and zoning laws are strictly enforced rather than carved off the bone and mutilated with exceptions.

Let this be the year when no school district is left behind; where every teacher – whether in Wyandanch or Great Neck, Roosevelt or Garden City – has the tools necessary to teach, and every student, from Buffalo to Bellmore, has the resources to learn.

We call upon our State Legislators and the Governor to do more than pay lip service to finding practical and workable solutions to how our school districts are funded; to adequately and equally provide aid to every district; to return the fair share of State income taxes to the community; to utilize the State Lottery exclusively for the purpose it was intended – education; to make certain that no child is deprived of the opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment; to relieve our school districts of unfunded mandates; and, at long last, to fund our schools on time.

At the same time, we ask our school administrators to curtail costs and expenditures wherever and whenever possible; to trim administrative costs in favor of meeting the needs of our children; to consolidate services and collaborate with neighboring districts; to scrutinize every line of the annual budget and publicly account for every penny.

And while you’re at it up in Albany, let us make this the year when the property tax crisis is finally addressed – and with more than mere platitudes such as the much-touted STAR program; an initiative tied to a failed tax system that portends to put money in our pockets while skyrocketing tax rates wipe out any savings to the already overburdened homeowner.

While no one can disagree (at least not with a straight face) that Albany needs fixing, sometimes that which is broken cannot be fixed. Let’s send to the scrap heap that which no longer works, bringing fresh ideas and new faces to the table. FixAlbany is an imperative. So is FixNassau and FixTheTown. Let’s work to clean our own houses, our own county, our own communities, as we do our utmost to make Albany work for us.

Let this be the year when we stop pointing fingers and placing blame, instead rolling up our sleeves to work for the greater good of the community. We are not, in the larger sense, Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. We are Long Islanders. We are New Yorkers. We are one community with common concerns in need of shared solutions.

Finally, let this be the year when we, as leaders of the communities that make our island the pride and envy of every New Yorker, join together to tackle the quality of life issues that too often divide and destroy community. We will partner wherever possible with state, county and local government, kicking about ideas, striving toward ideals, and realistically implementing initiatives that restore suburbia while reducing our tax burden. We will reach out to the private sector, looking to revitalize our business districts, our community parks, our somewhat less than pristine landscape. Above all, we, as the penultimate advocates of community, must make this the year that we make up our minds to work together to improve community – our community. In our unparalleled unity as The Community Alliance, there is unprecedented strength. In our combined efforts as the clearinghouse for myriad matters of community concern, local civic groups now speak with a clear and convincing voice. In an era where it is commonplace for the small to be overshadowed, for the fledgling to be stymied, for the quiet to be drowned out, we have made an unmistakable impact, demonstrating to all that the voice of community will not be stifled and cannot be ignored.

There is a resurgence of community here on our island; a rebirth of the suburban way of life our parents and their parents before them envisioned. Today we begin anew our endeavor to reclaim the vision, to restore the glitter, and to redefine both image and reality of the community we call home. We have come a long way in a very short time. We have a long way yet to travel. We look forward to having you with us on what will surely be a journey of renewal; an adventure most rewarding!