Taken to school on taxes
Newsday columnist Joye Brown takes on the taxman, and challenges Long Islanders to tackle government spending
Long Islanders talk about taxes as if they were some demon jumping, unbidden, onto our backs and beating us senseless.
But, yeah - I have seen the Taxman. And he is us.
Last week, as I lay sick in bed, the Long Island Index released its latest report.
It said, no surprise, that Long Islanders think taxes are a problem. It said, no surprise, that we're ready to do something about it.
The meatiest part of the report, however, received virtually no attention. It was an analysis of local government expenditures and revenue - the guts of what drives taxes - by the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research, a not-for-profit research group.
For the first time, the report calculated the cost of our many layers of government, concentrating on 359 entities on Long Island that spend the bulk of your tax dollars.
So what's the tab for all of those elected legislators, town boards, village and city councils, along with their staffs and office expenses?
Answer: $32.1 million.
And what about the supervisors, county executives, mayors and other top elected officials?
Answer: $53.2 million.
The judicial branch came in at more than the other two categories combined - $96.8 million in 2003, the last year for which complete figures are available.
And there's more:
Twenty-two different government entities on Long Island share finance, general governmental and highway functions, to the tune of $424 million.
Thirteen others share law enforcement-public safety functions for a total of $790 million.
But all of that is a drop in the bucket for a region that in 2003 rang up a total $15.9 billion to cover the combined cost of operating towns, counties, cities, villages, school and fire districts.
School districts, again - no surprise to anyone with the courage to survey their own tax bill - accounted for half the $15.9 billion in spending. Running Nassau and Suffolk counties took a third of the total cost. Operating fire, cities, towns and villages represented about one-fifth.
The Center for Governmental Research, founded in 1915, spent years perfecting ways to help residents see the costs of their local government.
Here's what it wants you to know: Long Island residents could save 75 cents for every dollar reduced in local government spending. In other words, local taxpayers directly - through property and sales taxes - bear 75 percent of the cost of the local bureaucracy.
Yesterday, I called upstate to Rochester and asked Charles Zettek, the report's author, what Long Island should do next. He couldn't say, but cited Monroe County, where residents voted down an effort to consolidate their local law enforcement agencies.
For Long Island, the study showed, school spending is wildly out of whack with the rest of government spending, he acknowledged.
"But I know people think of the public school system as being the jewel of Long Island," he said. "I don't know whether they would support taking that on."
What would you give up to lower your tax bill?
Joye Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click HERE to read Joye's follow-up article, Readers Tell Us How To Cut Sky-High Taxes
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.
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What would we have to give up, really, to lower our tax bills? Not all that much, if you think about it. Consolidation and elimination -- from fire service to sanitation, snow removal to street repair -- would give us the same services at a fraction of the cost. Trimming the fat -- whether in the form of patronage, excessive salaries, unwarranted perks and benefits, or other "extras" that bloat budgets -- could only save us money. Enforcing building codes and zoning laws, and creatively capturing the expenses attributed to the "hidden population," would add millions to the coffers.
No doubt, every reader of this blog could come up with countless ways for our local, County and State governments to reduce, recycle and reuse -- from top to bottom -- and the same is true for our public schools, where waste combines with wanton greed in upping the ante (or should we say the "ransom," for which our children's education is annually held hostage).
Save the few, at all levels and in all branches of government, who continue to speak up, to expect better, to demand more, where are those self-proclaimed taxpayer watchdogs, those progressive thinkers, the movers and shakers who dangled the hope of streamlined, efficient government before us when our votes were hanging in the balance? Where are those community advocates who so willingly talk of change, of renewal, of re-energizing our hometowns, but cower behind the apologist's cloak when it comes to challenging the status quo?
Are we ready, let alone willing, to give up the anonymity of apathy, the indignity of indifference, and the comfort of complacency, to lower our taxes and to improve our quality of life?