Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The De-Evolution of Local Government

If Jurassic Park Had Special Districts. . .

The Special Districts -- from fire to sanitation to water -- have evolved from simple fiefdoms of local control to unmanageable behemoths (with multi-million dollar budgets, no less) that now threaten to engulf -- and tax -- everything and everyone in their paths.

In short, Special Districts -- which have a foothold in everything from the street light in front of your home to the parking fields along Main Street -- have mutated from single-celled units designed to keep the body general running at peak performance, to rampant viruses that, left unchecked, threaten to consume both body and soul.

Tony Brita, a founding member of Residents For Efficient Special Districts, opines on efforts to reign in the Special Districts.

Read on. . .

“Government by average opinion is merely a circuitous method of going to the devil; those who profess to lead but in fact slavishly follow this average opinion are simply the fastest runners and the loudest squeakers of the herd which is rushing blindly down to its destruction.” When Thomas Henry Huxley uttered these words back in the 19th century, few could have predicted they would be relevant to the Special Districts within Nassau County today. Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman’s recent press release which urges the Towns to publicly review the budgets of special taxing districts has provided another example of the Town of Hempstead’s refusal to contemplate any type of reform of the special districts that reside within its borders. Even though Nassau County has no jurisdiction over the special districts, it has been leaders at the County level such as Harvey Levinson and Howard Weitzman who have continued to keep a spotlight focused on the inefficiencies of the special districts.

Comptroller Weitzman has reasonably asked the Town governments to review the budgets of all special districts that provide services within them. Unfortunately, Supervisor Murray has washed her hands clean of the matter by claiming that the Town of Hempstead does not have jurisdiction over the budgets of the special districts. The debate now revolves around whether or not State law allows the Town to do so. Nassau County is saying that the Town does have that ability and the Town is arguing they do not. Hopefully, someone who is knowledgeable with the law will explain to both sides what it actually says and provide some clarity and resolution to the issue soon.

Regardless of whether or not the Town has the ability to review the budgets of the special districts, it is disheartening that Supervisor Murray has not used her bully pulpit and political capital to encourage the special districts to improve their level of accountability and transparency to taxpayers. We can only assume that her silence on the issue implies tacit approval of the current state. While other politicians of both parties have made calls for reform, Supervisor Murray has been noticeably reticent. This stands in stark contrast to a number of other issues where she has been quite outspoken such as property assessments for which, ironically, the Town has no responsibility or oversight. At the special district forum held at Hofstra University this past June, Supervisor Murray stated that she would be hesitant to initiate any reform of the special districts without the input and feedback of residents. While some may applaud her populist approach, this red herring effectively absolves Supervisor Murray of any responsibility to take action of reform by pushing the issue back in the laps of taxpayers, essentially saying “It’s up to you.”

Supervisor Murray’s unprincipled stand is disappointing. As the most visible face and powerful figure within the Town of Hempstead, we should come to expect more of Supervisor Murray. Imagine what our country would be like today if politicians had waited for public opinion to change or had refused to address an issue because they felt it wasn’t within their control. It is time for Supervisor Murray to assume responsibility and push for reform of the special districts. If she fails to provide more inspired and thoughtful leadership on this issue, Supervisor Murray will quickly come to resemble the “fastest runners” and “loudest squeakers” that Mr. Huxley referred to back in the 19th century. Her actions to date give little room for optimism. Let’s hope she rises to the occasion and proves us wrong.

Tony Brita
Founding Member of Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD)

If you are interested in learning more about RESD or would like to become a member, please email
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Residents for Efficient Special Districts (“RESD”) is a nonpartisan, not for profit civic organization devoted to advocating for the most efficient and effective provision of Fire, Sanitation & Water services within the Town of Hempstead.

RESD’s mission is carried out through the following activities:

-Increasing public awareness of special districts and their impact on residents’ tax bills;
-Encouraging competitive elections for open commissioner seats;
-Promoting a single election day for all special districts and supervised by the Board of Elections;
-Lobbying elected officials on all levels, for consolidation of special districts into more efficient, transparent and accountable public service providers.

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