Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Times They Are A Changin'

"Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway or block up the halls
We'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
for the times they are a changin."
-Bob Dylan

An era comes to an end in Hempstead. The bright, cleansing light of the sun has begun to filter through the haze - a haze created by years of smoke and mirrors, benign neglect and an indifferent populace. A village on the brink of financial disaster. A failing school system. A bond rating just above junk. And taxes, taxes, taxes. James Garner, the eternal Mayor of Hempstead, is now history.

In the days of business as unusual, you-know-what hitting the fan wouldn't matter much to the more or less complacent electorate. Party line. Name recognition. Incumbency. You're in. Not any more. In a crowded field of five, Village of Hempstead Trustee Wayne Hall soundly defeated 4-term incumbent Mayor James Garner, 2334 to 1546. Who would have thought?

Well, officialdom better start thinking. The electorate, that small but stalwart group of people who trudge to the polls on the myriad election days we have on our island (and we have many, indeed), are rubbing the sand out of their eyes and beginning to awaken. Having been tethered to life support for over a generation, flat-lined on the EEG, we are summoning up the courage to pull the plug, to take a deep, life-assuring breathe and, yes, to think on our own. How extraordinarily refreshing!

On the streets of Hempstead, they weren't talking about political party. They weren't talking about incumbency. They weren't talking about cats and dogs. No, the talk on the street was dysfunctional government, a stagnating economy, broken schools, and TAXES.

Hopefully, the message of Hempstead 2005 will resonate - in Town Hall, at the County Legislature, and up in Albany. Yes, we know your names. True, many of you have become fixtures on the political scene (some more than figuratively). Okay, you've towed the party line. But neglect the quality of life issues that Long Islanders care most about - like schools and property taxes - and we'll remember to vote for the other guy.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "A little revolution now and then is a good thing." The people of our island are beginning to accept this notion. Call it changing dynamics or demographics, changing mindsets, or merely changing times, the revolution is at hand. Its a quiet revolution, but a revolution just the same. Long Islanders are taking up arms, stoic guards of the status quo no more, and voting for change. BULLY!

Monday, March 14, 2005

"What Is Right Is Not Always Popular..."

With over 150 people (including civic and community leaders from across Nassau County) packed into the chambers of the Nassau County Legislature (with nary a legislator in sight), Chairman of the Nassau County Board of Assessors, Harvey Levinson, held back no punches at the March 12th Public Hearing on the future of property taxes.

The highlights of Mr. Levinson’s presentation:

- Eliminating the residential portion of the school property tax (which accounts for nearly 60% of the tax bill in most communities), same to be replaced with a nominal (2-4%) income tax;
- Creating a single commercial property tax rate for all school districts so that every district shares in and benefits from tax revenues generated by commercial properties throughout the County;
- Consolidating, or in some cases, eliminating, many of the Town’s special districts so that all homeowners pay the same tax rate for services within the Town.

On the proposed income tax, which has raised more eyebrows in the County than anyone can remember, it was evident that many in attendance – while weary of an income tax – recognized the need to do something about the residential portion of the school property tax, which has become, to say the least, oppressive.

“This is a matter of survival here in Nassau County,” said one speaker. “We simply can no longer afford to live in our homes, and few but the very wealthy can afford to buy homes in the County, let alone pay the property taxes.”

A senior from Levittown told of paying more in property taxes than he paid for his house back in the sixties, and of considering a move to Florida or South Carolina because he cannot afford the taxes. “On a fixed income,” said the senior, “how does one have the ability to pay? Its an outrage!”

An income tax, based on one’s ability to pay, is inherently more fair than a regressive property tax based solely on the value of one’s house. Tied to income rather than property value, such a tax would save most homeowners 50% or more over the existing system, and, by reaching the invisible population of renters (said to number more than 100,000), a modest income tax would not only generate more revenue than presently raised for our school districts, it would create a system where EVERYONE pays their fair share (certainly not the case today, where the homeowner pays the way for the renter, illegal and otherwise).

On creating a single commercial tax rate to be shared by all school districts, their was nearly universal support. Under the present system, commercial properties generate revenues only for the school districts in which they are situated. So, for instance, school taxes collected from Roosevelt Field, which lies mainly within the Uniondale School District, go (but for a small portion of Ring Road in Garden City), to the Uniondale School District. We all pour money into Roosevelt Field. Why shouldn’t all school districts share the revenues on a more or less equal footing?

Then there’s the issue of the special districts, those mini-governments that fly basically under the radar, with little or no public scrutiny, and the unfettered authority to set tax rates – another hand (or two) in our pockets.

The great disparity of rates (ranging from $12 and change for each $100 in assessed value for “at the door” garbage collection in the Five Towns to double that rate for curbside pick-up in Elmont, Franklin Square and West Hempstead); to where a homeowner on one side of a street pays twice as much as his neighbor across the street solely by virtue of the fact that the houses are in different Sanitary Districts. The height of absurdity.

Yes, there was dissension even on this issue, notably from Managers and Commissioners of the Sanitary Districts who fear that the walls of their long-protected fiefdoms are about to be scaled – their villainy to be exposed to the brilliant, cleansing light of the sun. And who could blame them? The 20-hour work week, with full salary and benefits, outed; the end of double taxation (pay once for the Town’s Sanitation Department, then pay again for the local Sanitary Districts), no more; the day of the patronage “commissioner,” elected in near-secrecy, whose pensions we pay for “no-show” positions, over.

Let’s face it – the property tax system is broken beyond repair. If you don’t think so, just take a look at your property tax statement. Out of control and going nowhere but up. On the school side, left unchecked, that tax bill will double in five (5) years. Can YOU afford to foot that bill? No one can defend the present property tax system. At least not with a straight face.

As for these special districts, run by “special” people for the benefit of those special few, there is no question that most of them are simply unnecessary.

Take the Sanitary Districts (please) as a poignant example of wasted resources (read as, “our money!”). In the City of New York, there is a single Sanitation Department, under a single Commissioner, servicing, according to the 2000 Census, 8,008,278 people. Not only do they collect garbage and recycling with remarkable proficiency, they also keep the streets clean and remove snow.

Now, take a look at how the Town of Hempstead, servicing some 755,924 residents (that’s less than 10% of the City’s population, for those who have not mastered the math). Six (count ‘em, 6) Sanitary Districts, including the townwide Department of Sanitation, each with multiple Commissioners (in Sanitary 6, there are 6 Commissioners), setting their own rates, collecting garbage and recycling at the door in some communities and at the curb in others, with no responsibility to keep our streets clean or clear of snow (that’s a function of the Town Highway Department, the folks who have trouble maintaining our streets in good repair). Are the streets in the business districts of the Town’s hamlets cleaner than those in the 5 Boroughs? A rhetorical question. We all know the answer to that. This travesty must come to an end!

Of course, talk of income tax, eliminating unnecessary special districts, and changing the ways towns conduct business as unusual, is not always politically expedient. In fact, here on Long Island, it is often akin to political suicide. Which is probably why folks like Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (of FixAlbany fame), were quoted in Newsday as having serious reservations about these significant proposals. From “I didn’t know the Assessor was holding a Public Hearing” (hey, look at the County’s website once in a while) to “An income tax would chase people away from Nassau County” (you mean to say the property tax and the dearth of affordable housing attract them?), the comments are within the realm of political correctness, but completely out of step with reality.

The finger can – and will – be pointed just as easily and readily at most other elected officials who, adrift in this lifeboat with dwindling provisions, would rather sit with arms folded than pick up an oar and row. Where were our County and State Legislators at the March 12th Hearing? Other than Assemblyman Charles Lavine, elected as part of the FixAlbany revolt, no one had the courage to show. We would suppose that none of them knew about this Hearing either, but for the fact that nearly all are on our e-mail list, receiving, if not reading, the many missives calling all to action, and all were asked to attend, at the invite of Harvey Levinson.

Face it. Few politically-inclined would touch these issues with a ten-foot pole. Guess what? They’d better. Our very survival here on Long Island depends on it. [And if anyone reading this thinks we exaggerate, again we say, take a look at your tax statement!]

Perhaps we need a litmus test for all of our elected officials. We need to ask everyone holding public office, “What’s your plan to reduce the property tax?” Demand an answer, not double-speak. Then draw that line at the polling place: NO PLAN. NO VOTE!

Abraham Lincoln, who faced decisions a lot tougher that the property tax and the elimination of special districts, said that “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.” Sure, Lincoln didn’t live in Nassau County, or under the smothering stranglehold of the Town of Hempstead, where “getting fooled” is not only a way of life, its an art form. Still, at some point, even the bleary-eyed, overtaxed, under-served and barely represented are heard to say, “We won’t get fooled again!”

Meanwhile, “thank you,” Harvey Levinson, for opening eyes, risking political capital, and laying it all on the line for the good people of Nassau County. You could, like so many before you, have ignored the crisis. You didn’t. You can, like most of your colleagues in elected office, go with the conventional wisdom. You won’t. You might have considered sugar-coating the problem and playing footsie with the special interests at the special districts. Not a chance.

There is a sign inside the entrance to the Meeting Pavilion at Hempstead Town Hall, inscribed with a quote the origin of which by far precedes the person to whom it is attributed. It reads, “What is right is not always popular. What is popular is not always right.” Would that all of our elected officials paused to read and reflect upon these pearls of wisdom. Would that some had the daring and gumption to so act. Would that there were more who had the backbone, the foresight, and the “let’s do what’s right” attitude of Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, they will and there are. Although, with history as a guide, we wouldn’t put any money on that (assuming you have any money left, after you pay your property tax bill)!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Bread Of Our Affliction

A Passover Story, As Told By Counsel For Town Of Hempstead Sanitary District 1
An article appeared in a recent edition of the Nassau Herald on the subject of the Nassau County Comptroller's pending audit of several of the Special Districts, including Sanitary District 1. [We are reprinting the article below in its entirety, because you simply cannot make this stuff up!]

Commenting on the services provided by the Sanitary District, Nat Swergold, the chief counsel for Sanitary District 1, said "The district... accommodates the large Orthodox Jewish population in the area by arranging for special trucks during the eight holy days of Passover so bread can be disposed of, since observant Jews do not eat bread during the holiday."

Now, don't get us wrong. We appreciate the great lengths our Sanitary Districts go to in order to serve the public, but "special trucks during... Passover" to collect the bread?

What next? The fire districts placing extra fire trucks in service just in case the horse radish on the gefilte fish burns the roofs of our mouths? Or maybe the water districts will pump in extra water to our homes to help wash down the matzo?

Let's face it, Jews, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated, are not hording bread prior to the holiday. Indeed, most Jews, logic dictates, try to consume the bread they do have in the house before Passover. Assuming any bread remains, most Jews I know (this blogger included), clean the house of bread BEFORE the start of the holiday, and not, certainly, "during the eight holy days" referred to by Mr. Swergold. Just what are these "special trucks" picking up?

Is this the best counsel for the Sanitary District can offer up as a raison d'etre for these Special Taxing Jurisdictions? If so, we've only one word for him: Gevalt!

One has to ask, do we really need three garbage collection days, a recycling day, a bulk pick up day and a yard waste pick up day, keeping in mind that it is Town Highways, not the Sanitary Districts, that sweeps our streets (all too infrequently) and plows the snow. Why - and we’re embarrassed to say this - there are some days when we have absolutely no trash to put out at the curb. Are we eligible for a rebate?

It doesn't take an Einstein - who, by the way, celebrated Passover in a secular vein - to realize that the existence of the Sanitary Districts, and other Special Districts within the township, cannot be substantiated "as is," and the cost to run these districts - special trucks for Passover aside - cannot be justified. At least not with a straight face. Why, in Sanitary District 6, we only have six Commissioners, shy of the ten required for a Minyan!

Clearly, what the Sanitary Districts are trying to put over on the taxpayers amounts to nothing less than unmitigated chutzpah.

According to Andrew Parise, the Mayor of Cedarhurst (which is in Sanitary District 1), "Curbside service wouldn't fly here." You mean to tell me they're picking up garbage at the door? [And here we are, in Sanitary District 6, paying twice the rate for mere curbside service.]

We just have two simple questions: (1) How many Sanitary District Commissioners does it take to change that dim light bulb over the head of the unwittingly inane Nat Swergold, and (2) How long will we, the taxpaying homeowners of the Town of Hempstead, allow ourselves to be played for fools?

- - -

Sanitary district audit planned County comptroller plans to explore consolidation of garbage pickup

By Andrew Coen

In an effort to save county residents money on the taxes they pay for services like garbage pickup and water, Nassau County Comptroller Howard S. Weitzman has announced plans to begin auditing some of the more than 400 special taxing districts throughout the county.
Sanitary District 1, which services the Five Towns and small portions of Lynbrook and Valley Stream, is among the five districts to be audited and considered for consolidation with other areas.

Other districts that will undergo audits include Sanitary District 2, which encompasses Baldwin, South Hempstead and Roosevelt; District 6, which takes in Elmont, North Valley Stream, Franklin Square, West Hempstead and Lakeview; the Port Washington Garbage District in the Town of North Hempstead, and the Syosset Sanitary District in the Town of Oyster Bay.
The districts were selected for audits based on criteria such as high tax rates, large accumulated surpluses and high tax increases in 2004-05, the comptroller said.

According to Weitzman, along with residents paying village, town and county taxes, there are nearly 400 sanitation and water districts with 1,600 different tax rates, amounting to a "hidden government" that adds to the already heavy tax burden. Weitzman said he would like to explore the feasibility of town governments' consolidating some of the special districts to save taxpayers money and operate them with greater efficiency.

"The growth of these special districts reflects the haphazard development of Nassau County in the last century, from a collection of unassociated towns, villages and hamlets," said Weitzman. "Some of [these districts] may be necessary and some may be well-run, but the persistence of so many separate governmental authorities, with their own employees and tax rates, tends to hide the true cost of local government and contributes to our high local tax burden."

Nat Swergold, the chief counsel for Sanitary District 1, said he does not see his district meeting any of Weitzman's criteria for an audit, since, Swergold said, the district does not have a high surplus, has one of the lowest tax rates in the state and has not had any hefty tax increases. "We are probably a target for this audit because we are the largest [sanitary district]," said Swergold, adding that Sanitary District 1 services more than 30,000 households.

According to Swergold, last year's tax rate for single-family residences in District 1 was $12.58 per $100 of the assessed value of a home, which is half the rate of District 2 ($24.62 per $100) and District 6 ($26.05 per $100).

"[District 1's] tax rates are much lower than the rest of the districts," said Cedarhurst Mayor Andrew Parise. "I don't know who would provide better service than we get here."

Swergold said that while he welcomes an investigation into his district, because it is well run, he does not think the audit is necessary, since the state comptroller audits the district periodically. He added that he could not envision any sort of consolidation of the areas to save money, since each sanitation district has different needs. "I think [consolidation] is not a good idea, because each area and each district is unique," said Swergold, who has been the attorney for District 1 since 1972. "There is no way we could keep these services if there were consolidation."

Swergold said that District 1 is unique compared with other sanitary districts, in part because its workers pick up trash in the rear of residents' homes, which means residents do not have to place garbage curbside unless they are disposing of heavy items. The district operates its own recycling plant in North Lawrence and, as a result, has the highest recycling rate of any sanitary district in the state, according to Swergold. The district also accommodates the large Orthodox Jewish population in the area by arranging for special trucks during the eight holy days of Passover so bread can be disposed of, since observant Jews do not eat bread during the holiday.

"Curbside service wouldn't fly here," Parise said of the unique services offered to residents in District 1.
According to Weitzman, the goal of the audits is to provide a better understanding of the districts'
expenditures, hiring and procurements practices and the efficiency of their operations. He said that additional audits of other special districts in the county would be considered depending on how the initial examination goes.

The comptroller's decision to initiate audits follows a January report by County Assessor Harvey Levinson that showed that many special taxing jurisdictions, like garbage and water districts, spend millions of dollars each year with little observation by the public. The report prompted Levinson to call on the comptroller to audit those districts in the county.

"Homeowners who pay widely different tax rates for the same services within a town are entitled to know how their ever-increasing tax dollars are spent," said Levinson. "I am confident that Comptroller Weitzman's independent examination of sanitation districts operating within the towns will lead to sensible cost-cutting measures, consolidation or possibly even the elimination of these unnecessary invisible governments."

The planned audits have the support of some top state officials, including Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "In beginning these audits, Comptroller Weitzman is addressing the need for greater public oversight of these taxing districts," said Hevesi. A 2002 audit of some of these special districts by then state Comptroller Carl McCall found that several districts kept unreasonably high reserve balances.
Weitzman's audits will examine administrative and operating expenses and the appropriateness of fund balances.

Comments about this story? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 210.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Quality of Life as Job One!

Some months ago, Dr. Salvatore Lombardo, a West Hempstead Chiropractor and compatriot in community advocacy, penned a letter to News & Views, the West Hempstead Civic Association's print newsletter.

With profound apologies to the great (and not so great) Czars of Russia, we are reprinting the letter below, its theme relevant to our communities wherever they lie, and its implications of significance far beyond the fair hamlet of West Hempstead.

Sadly, and as a footnote to our story, Seth has not gotten the nod as Quality of Life Czar, either at the Town of Hempstead or elsewhere. He sits by his telephone, day in and day out, wondering whether the ringer is broken or the buttons on the phone on the other end just don't work. "Can you hear me now? Good!"

In the event anyone is paying attention, Seth remains interested. Its either this or a run for the School Board, we suppose. Operators are standing by...

Roy J. Mezzapelle
The Community Alliance

I have enjoyed reading News & Views over the years (I even took pleasure in serving as editor), and am intrigued by the recurring Quality of Life theme. I applaud the Civic Association, not only for keeping tabs on the many and varied Quality of Life issues, but moreover, in keeping residents in the loop. Clearly, matters such as taxes, the development and redevelopment of our business and commercial districts, the performance of our schools, the appearance of our parks, byways and open spaces and the many aspects of code enforcement are crucial in maintaining our suburban way of life. The WHCA has been riding the crest of the wave on all fronts, and having “been there and done that,” I can fully appreciate the effort and the resolve.

Over the years, the Civic Association has taken umbrage to the Town of Hempstead’s piecemeal approach to Quality of Life issues – the so-called “Band-Aid” fix – taking the Town to task to be proactive rather than reactive. I would like to add my voice to the chorus. It appears that the “knee-jerk” reaction of the Town has supplanted both short and long term planning, and problems are addressed only as they arise, with a narrow scope and little if any view of the big picture.

Why is it that the Town only treats the symptoms rather than taking a holistic approach, not only to zoning and code enforcement issues, but to long range planning as well?

With a huge surplus, and increasing tax revenues (from a greater burden placed upon homeowners), the Town of Hempstead should be leading the charge on everything from the critical illegal rental dilemma to the mundane replacement of missing street signs. Code enforcement, from building violations to sanitation issues, should be the norm rather than aberration. Instead, the onus is placed upon local civic groups, particularly in the unincorporated areas of the Town, to carry the ball.

Understandably, the Town Supervisor is engaged in the day-to-day operation of America’s largest township, not to mention a multitude of appearances, conferences and meetings. Expecting, let alone requiring the Town’s CEO to keep up to speed on the whole host of Quality of Life concerns, micro-managing each department and every aspect of Town services, is unrealistic, if not counter-productive. To ask the Town Councilman, who essentially works full-time in what was intended as a part-time position, and whose function is, first, to legislate, second, to mediate and third, to facilitate, to serve as other than a conduit between the community and Town Hall and to assume an oversight function, is similarly unworkable.

What is necessary, as I see it, is the appointment of what is in effect a Quality of Life Czar – someone well-versed in and in tune with the problems that confront communities within the township, capable of acting as both liaison and ombudsman, empowered to take action, with the blessing of the Supervisor and the Town Board, as a coordinator and administrator of the various Town departments and agencies whose very functions, at least in theory, impact greatly upon our Quality of Life.

The creation of a Quality of Life Office at Town Hall, fully funded and staffed, under the direction of a non-partisan “hands-on” executive duly authorized to call the shots, take the hits, and get things done, would greatly improve not only our daily Quality of Life, but also, would effectively lay the groundwork for tomorrow’s planning and development. As for who would be best suited for this key position, certainly, one person comes immediately to mind – our Civic Association’s own Seth Bykofsky, the scion of community activism, the consummate neighborhood advocate, the no-holds-barred promoter of Quality of Life in this hamlet and beyond, and, as those who have had the privilege of serving with him on the Executive Board could attest, one heck of a Czar!

Dr. Salvatore Lombardo

Editor’s Note: The writer is a former member of the West Hempstead Civic Association’s Executive Board and served as editor of News & Views from 1997 – 2002.