Monday, September 11, 2006

"Special" Takes On New Meaning

Residents For Efficient Special Districts Looks To Redefine Business (and Politics) As Unusual

The dictionary offers several definitions for the word "special," among them, "surpassing what is common or usual; exceptional; distinct among others of a kind; having a limited or specific function, application, or scope; and, regarded with particular affection and admiration."

Hmmm. That last one doesn't seem to fit the bill with respect to the hundreds of Special Districts that pass for local governing bodies (not to mention taxing jurisdictions) here on Long Island. [Then again, we do so love our Sanitary Districts, don't we?]

Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD), a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic organization advocating for the most efficient and effective provision of Fire, Sanitation & Water services within the Town of Hempstead (and beyond), offers its own "special" take on the Special Districts.

Read on. . .

Special Districts: Redefining the word “Special”

Newsday recently ran an article (see Roosevelt Fire Commissioner Campaigning in Florida) about Fire Commissioner Ronnie McLean who moved to Florida yet failed to resign his position with the Roosevelt Fire District. [The Community Alliance likewise followed up on Emi Endo's expose with its Man Of Many Hats blogpost.] It was not until the St. Petersburg Times reported that Mr. McLean was running for an elected position in Florida while still holding office in New York, that anyone in Roosevelt was aware of Mr. McLean’s whereabouts. “Before I was actually on the ballot down here, I'm pretty sure that I was not a commissioner in Roosevelt” was Mr. McLean’s response. Well, I’m pretty sure the taxpayers of Roosevelt deserve a better explanation than that.

Ever since Harvey Levinson, in his failed run for Town of Hempstead Supervisor last year, began to throw light on the ever increasing and seemingly arbitrary costs of the special districts, the public has become understandably upset with how their tax dollars are being spent. An increasing number of politicians from both parties, editorial boards of newspapers, and civic groups have begun to advocate for the consolidation of special districts. The argument being that consolidation would reduce the duplicative administrative costs associated with operating the special districts, thus lowering the costs of providing the service which in turn would lower taxes for everyone.

Due to the attention on taxes, the primary fixation on the special districts has been to highlight the opportunity to lower the tax burden. One area that has received less emphasis, but in some respects is equally important; if not more, is that of transparency and accountability. Even though the special districts are public entities with elected officials, they are not subject to the same controls, oversight, and regulations as most other government organizations. The story of Mr. McLean is an example of this lack of control. It’s clear the Fire District did not have a written policy regarding the resignation process for commissioners. It would be laughable to think that either County Executive Suozzi or Town Supervisor Murray could jet off to Florida, run for election there, and not have anyone notice. Unlike Fire Commissioner Daniel Markham who said “I don't know when he (Mr. McLean) moved; he didn't tell me. I found out just two days ago that he's resigning and he's relocated.”

The administrative operations of special districts have been run like mom-and-pop shops since the day they started, and to be fair, it worked when the tax burden was manageable. If the Sanitation Commissioners went out for a $700 steak dinner, well…. what was the big deal, right? Special districts have failed to realize, so far, that times have changed. Given the fact that Long Islanders have one of the highest tax burdens, not just in New York, but the country, residents are rightly demanding that every dollar used by any public service provider be accounted for. It is not an unreasonable demand given the current environment. The cost of incompetence has become too high to bear. The special districts need to become more professional and begin to institute many of the controls and oversight that other public service providers are required to follow. Here are just a few steps special districts could take to increase accountability to the public:

1. Submit their budget to a public vote similar to the school budget or, at the very least, an opportunity for public review and comment before it is enacted;
2. Have an independent auditor perform an assessment on a regular basis;
3. Develop written policies and procedures for every aspect of operations;
4. Create a website with public information such as meeting dates, commissioner contact information, budget information, and election dates.

Consolidation of the special districts is ultimately the proper direction to take. As many have come to learn, this consolidation will not happen overnight. It will take many years and there will be protracted struggles along the way as entrenched groups will fight tooth and nail to protect their special interests. In the short term, what we as residents can do is encourage the special districts to become more responsible, accountable, and transparent to taxpayers. Even though our taxes may not go down anytime in the near future, at least we will have the peace of mind that basic controls and oversight are in place to ensure that our tax dollars are not being wasted.

A new nonprofit, nonpartisan civic group called Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD) has been formed to advocate for these very things. If you are interested in learning more about RESD and/or would like to become a member, please e-mail

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