Thursday, July 06, 2006

Showdown In Sanitary District 1

Race For Commissioner's Seat Heats Up As Status Quo Is Challenged

The Community Alliance Endorses Jeremy Merrill

Transparency. Accountability. Financial control. Not words that readily roll off the tip of the tongue as concern Nassau County's Special Districts. Certainly not what comes to mind when one talks about the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary Districts, in general, and the now notorious Sanitary District 1, in particular.

Readers of this blog, and the civic-minded beyond blogdom, will recall the findings of the Nassau County Comptroller's aborted audit of Sanitary District 1 which, despite stonewalling by the District's Commissioners, exposed a "near total lack of financial control," calling the District's operations "an invitation to fraud."

Among other improprieties at Sanitary District 1, the Comptroller cited the following:

-Extravagant spending on travel and meals. Over the two-year period examined, the district spent a total of $14,610 to send four district managers to a waste conference in New Orleans and three managers to a similar conference in Dallas, "an amount that appears to be unreasonable for government officials exercising official duties." At these conferences, the managers treated themselves to exorbitant dinners. A steak dinner for four at Morton's Steakhouse in New Orleans cost $676; other dinners on the same trip cost $446 and $379. During the two trips, the employees also racked up $536 in limousine charges and $710 in lounge/bar charges. Also, the district spent $4,300 to provide coffee service in its administrative offices as well as $2,300 on catering for board meetings. The district has no written policy on travel or meals.

-Inadequate timekeeping. The district requires no timesheets to be filled out by any of its employees. Instead, the timekeeping process consists of a supervisor checking off employee names on a list when he sees them arrive at work. The auditors observed limited attendance by several highly compensated employees during the three months when Comptroller's staff were on site. In addition, the hours that sanitation workers are required to work are not clear.

-Excessive and unexplained payments. Compensation for commissioners in SD-1 (and other districts with budgets exceeding $800,000 per year) is limited by county law to $7,500 per year. Since commissioners are not regular employees, they do not ordinarily receive paid leave. Yet one SD-1 commissioner received an unexplained $5,000 payroll payment, which was coded as "sick pay." With this payment, the commissioner's total compensation for the year was brought to $4,000 more than the legal limit. Auditors who reviewed a pay period at random also found that that nearly 50 percent of all union members' base salaries exceeded the union pay scale.

-Controls over cash receipts were alarmingly absent, the Comptroller said. "District 1 receives nearly $900,000 a year in fees from contractors seeking to dump construction debris and yard waste. Only cash is accepted," he said. "When we compared 'tip-fee' receipts to cash register records, the books simply didn't add up.

-The lack of proper bookkeeping, and the concentration of such duties in the hands of one individual (the treasurer), with no oversight, represents an invitation to fraud," Comptroller Weitzman said.

That District Treasurer, by the way -- a gentleman by the name of Sal Evola -- not only held his position with the Sanitary District, but, simultaneously, 3 other public posts, reporting to the State Pension Fund a total of 733 days of work during calendar year 2004.

The laxity at the Sanitary District has become the subject of an ongoing audit by the New York State Comptroller, Alan Hevesi (with findings due out in August), and of a criminal probe by the District Attorney of Nassau County.

Officials of Sanitary District 1 maintain that there was no malfeasance, let alone criminal conduct, with incumbent Commissioner Joseph Candella -- who serves as Chairman of the District's Board of Commissioners, and is now seeking a third term of office -- telling The Jewish Star, "there is no wrongdoing, and never has been."

We believe you, Mr. Candella. Sure, others might not, questioning what has become a grim fairy tale among the Sanitary Districts -- that residents "enjoy" paying twice as much for garbage collection than that paid by those served directly by the Town of Hempstead Department of Sanitation. Indeed, as the facts bare out, residents typically "enjoy" paying more for garbage collection than they do for police protection.

Candella proudly proclaims that Sanitary District 1 can boast "100 percent pick up 100 percent of the time, " telling the Nassau Herald, "We have something very, very good, and at the lowest tax rate of any District."

"Very, very good" for commissioners by cronyism, perhaps, but certainly not for District 1 residents, who, according to the Nassau County Comptroller's Report on Special Districts, paid a tax levy (residential) in 2004 that, on average, was $187 per year greater than the levy on residential properties served directly by the Town of Hempstead's Sanitation Department, and, assertions by Commissioner Candella to the contrary notwithstanding, higher than each of Nassau County's 13 Sanitary and Disposal Districts, save one (residents in Sanitary District 6 had the privilege of paying the top tax levy in 2004, averaging $598 per parcel).

Okay. So Mr. Candella apparently does not have much of an aptitude for either facts or figures. So what? Its experience that counts, after all, right?

Well, if experience at hoodwinking the public, maintaining shoddy records, and dining at Morton's Steakhouse count, then surely Commissioner Candella deserves another term at the helm at Sanitary District 1.

If, on the other hand, residents are keen on fiscal oversight, managerial control, and conduct that avoids, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety, then clearly it is time for a change at the Sanitary District.

On Monday, July 10th, elections for Commissioner will be held in Sanitary District 1 (6 PM to 10 PM at District headquarters, on Bay Boulevard in North Lawrence).

Taking up the challenge to the status quo, and to the reign of Commissioner Candella, is Cedarhurst resident Jeremy Merrill.

Merrill, a newcomer to the political scene, is the Director of Operations at Weill-Cornell Medical College, and currently a candidate for an MBA in Management at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

A registered Democrat, taking on what has become a bastion of GOP patronage, Merrill sees issues larger than political affiliation at stake. “This is not an issue of Republicans against Democrats, this is not an issue about party association. Our sanitation district is in desperate need of reform and it affects everyone, regardless of their party affiliation. Bringing about reform is rarely a simple feat, but there is an immediate need in our district.”

No 'simple feat" indeed. You know that the Nassau County GOP Machine will bring out the big guns in order to keep Candella on the District's Board of Commissioners. If history is a guide, residents can expect to see the District "employ" its own workers in the last days of the campaign to stymie the opposition and get out the vote of those whose marginal authority -- not to mention patronage jobs -- depend on the maintenance of the status quo.

Watch for the rallies of the party faithful, the mud-slinging, and, if all else fails, the 11th hour intervention of the Board of Commissioners themselves, ala the antics of the Sanitary District 2 Board in last year's election.

Watch, too, this litmus test, not only of the effectiveness of a political Machine that, by all rights, should have gone out with the wooly mammoth, but of the resolve of residents to free themselves of the longstanding chokehold of Special District taxation.

If, as the old saying goes, "all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing," then look for a light turnout at the polls on Monday for this off-year, off-month Sanitary District election, and expect the return of Joe Candella for another term as Commissioner.

If, on the other hand, residents are sufficiently fed up with over-the-top taxes, gross mismanagement, and fiscal fictions, and take little "enjoyment" in paying twice the going rate for sanitation services, then look for an upset on July 10th.

Jeremy Merrill is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale and putrid environment of the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary District 1, where the shades are drawn to public scrutiny under the guise of "local control," and windows are rarely opened to let in either a refreshing breeze or the cleansing light of day.

Yes, there will be an election for Commissioner in Sanitary District 1 on Monday, July 10th. The real issue on the ballot, however, is whether voters -- who generally disenfranchise themselves as concern mundane matters such as the trashing of their tax dollars -- will favor more of the same, or take up arms at the ballot box to begin to regain actual control over what County Comptroller Howard Weitzman has called "a hidden government that drains taxpayers' wallets."

The choice in Sanitary District 1 is as clear as the need for true reform is evident. The Community Alliance endorses Jeremy Merrill for Commissioner.
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POINT OF INTEREST: Although the Office of the State Comptroller requires "Special Districts" to file annual reports providing detailed data and information on such matters as revenue vs. expenses and fund balances, upon information and belief, the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary District 1 failed to file such reports for calendar years 2000 through 2005.

And they say "absence makes the heart grow fonder. . ."

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