Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fire And Water: Paying To Play

Comments To Blogspots Spur Debate ~ Keep Those Postings Coming!

A recent post to one of The Community Alliance rants raised some interesting points, reached certain far-reaching, if but entirely obvious conclusions, and, we believe, is well worth repeating here.

Nassau Resident writes:
So much to say, so little time. So much to understand, so little time. So much to think about, so little time. Of course, that's one of our basic problems these days, isn't it - so little time left in our harried, busy lives for us as individuals to seek out the truth for ourselves; instead, we are more and more often forced to listen to the processed and reduced 'truths' we have to hear on the news, read in the papers, or watch on television.

Is there financial waste or misspending in the fire service on Long Island? Before we say yes or no, let's remember one thing: the brave men and women who leave their families when the gong sounds, be it during dinner, services, or the middle of the night, are generally using the equipment that has been provided for them by the taxing authorities; the firehouses are generally constructed by the taxing authorities; the vehicles are purchased by taxing authorities. These taxing authorities - fire districts - are run by publicly elected officials. Does everyone know that the second Tuesday in December, every year, is the annual election of Fire District Commissioners, across the whole of New York State? When was the last time YOU voted in this election? It is these commissioners who decide what to spend, when to spend it, how to spend it. They go on trips to Vegas for 'commissioner' conventions, supposedly to learn what they can about how to run a fire district. Yeah, as if some guy who's a sanitation worker in his real job, or some other low-level menial labor, really has the business aptitude to understand what it takes to run a multi-million dollar fire district. Not to belittle these folks in their day-to-day pursuits, they are all hard working, family supporters. But let's be honest, if they know so much about running multi-million dollar businesses, why are they picking up garbage for a living?

It is here, with the Commissioners, that we must start, just as we must start with the School Boards to control spending in the schools, and the Sanitation Commissioners to control costs in the Sanitary Districts - by the way, some of these same Fire Commissioners are also publicly elected Sanitation Commissioners - bet you didn't know that either - and as Sanitation Commissioners, they even draw a salary. You think they know any more about running multi-million dollar Sanitation Districts than they do about running multi-million dollar Fire Districts? Maybe that's why Districts like Sanitation 6 charge way more per household than the Town of Hempstead.

Newsday's series of articles is revealing many interesting facts, some wholly truthful, others misinterpreted, still others simply out of context, but while they have singled out individual firehouses, fire companies, and districts as examples of what they call abuses and excesses, one must take careful note that the same names seem to keep coming up, again and again and again. And while these departments may very well have spending out of control, one must ask a very good question: can I do it better myself? It is always easy to sit back and pass judgement; to develop the plan, and then to execute it properly is a whole different matter.

A friend of mine ran for Fire Commissioner in our district a few years back, and lost the election. Not for lack of trying, you understand, but partly because the residents don't know, and they apparently don't care - turnout was around 5% - at least not until Newsday starts writing articles about the fire service.
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These comments, by a poster whose identity remains unknown to The Community Alliance, are well thought out and well said.

Absolutiely correct in praising the brave and selfless volunteers of our fire departments. They have never been a part of the problem. Well, almost never.

It is also true that we have to start with the Commissioners -- the folks we "elect" to represent us. Shame on us for not coming out to vote in these elections. Do you think at least part of that has to do with when the elections are held (December for Fire and Water, August for Sanitation), and that the interests of certain groups/people are best served by not publicizing that vote?

Fact is, most folks do not know that elections for Fire District and Water District Commissioners are held on the 2nd Tuesday in December -- most are still digesting Thanksgiving dinner and getting ready for Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanza -- and even those who do know rarely pay attention. Too bad, as these are the elected officials who decide how much of our money the districts will tax, and how and where our money will be spent, whether for most critical local services, or for junkets to the Bahamas.

Perhaps we need to prevail upon our State Legislature to have all such "local" elections held on the same day every year. Why not on that certain Tuesday in November, or, if they fear the voter would be confused by too much on the ballot, that Super Tuesday in May when we vote on school budgets, library budgets, and corresponding Trustees, those other local mandates that consume our thoughts and our money?

Could be if we, as taxpayers, took an interest in these elections, scutinized who was running, reviewed budgets and processes, and then kept our eyes on the pot (after all, it is our money), maybe, just maybe, we would see qualified candidates elected as Commissioners, and at least some semblance of accountability to the public in the operation of these Special Districts.

Of course, most residents barely take an interest in the election of Presidents, County Executives and Town Supervisors, so what can we expect when it comes to Commissioners of Fire, Water and Sanitation.

And the question still remains, do we really need 126 (or whatever that number is today) separate and distinct fire districts and school districts, umpteen sanitary districts, and the more than 400 other "special" taxing jurisdictions that spread time, effort and money too thin on this not all that long island?

The Special Districts fly below the radar, like almost everything that happens in government operations, simply because we let them. We turn the other cheek, go about our "harried, busy lives," stopping only long enough -- if then -- to gasp at our property tax bills, to let out a huge grumbling sound, and to throw up our hands in disgust.

Our involvement, as citizens, as residents, as taxpayers, cannot be a passive one, lest we resign ourselves, as if by fatalistic design, to a decline in quality of life, in basic services, in simple human dignities. Our growing complacency, our willingness to accept what has been and what is, our refusal to stand up, shout out and be counted, are eclipsed only by the ever escalating price we pay in the loss of suburbia, the least of which, in the long run, may well be the property tax.

Indeed, the fault lies not in our stars -- or even in those Commissioners -- but in ourselves.
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Find A Solution, Win A Day Off From Property Tax
Seems that there's only one way to get new ideas to the table; to generate enough interest and excitement so that folks actually take it upon themselves to do someting. Have a contest!

And so it is with finding solutions to the property tax crisis here on Long Island.

The question: What can be done to reduce or eliminate the School Property Tax on Long Island?

Give us your answer, in 500 words or less, and, should your proposal be selected, The Community Alliance will post it prominently on its website, feature it on this blog, forward same on to our legislative leaders, the County Executive, and the media, and, better still, reward you with one (1) Property Tax Free Day* in 2006, courtesy of the C0-Chairs of The Community Alliance.

Now that's a win-win for everyone!

E-mail your proposals to Contest open to bona fide homeowners residing in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Deadline for contest submissions is Friday, December 30, 2005. Special District Commissioners and their families are not eligible. Void in the village of Malverne, or where otherwise prohibited by law. Winner must prove home ownership and produce actual tax statements as issued by the office of the Receiver of Taxes. The decision of the judges will be final.

*Value of Property Tax Free Day to be determined by dividing winning homeowner's entire property tax bill (School, County, Town, Special District) by 365, with a check or cash equivalent to be paid to said homeowner. In the event of a tie, the C0-Chairs of The Community Alliance will split the difference and go out to lunch at Umbertos.

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