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)!

No comments:

Post a Comment