Thursday, November 30, 2006

You Can Never Have Too Much Government

"The More The Merrier," Say New Yorkers

A recent report issued by NYS Comptroller Alan Hevesi confirms what many off us have been complaining about for a long, long time: We have way too many layers of government.

State, county, town, village, city -- and hundreds of departments and agencies under them -- all with their own "wish list" for the holidays, each digging into our all but empty pockets.

Fiefdoms that worked so well -- at least in terms of control of both party and masses -- in the 1800s and 1900s, today fail us in terms of efficiency and cost effectiveness.

There are 4200 local governments, give or take a few, in New York State, and that doesn't include Special Districts (i.e., Water, Fire, Sanitary), public authorities (nearly 700 of them, at last count), or the plethora of taxing districts that come squarely under the influence of other local governments, such as Sewer Districts, Lighting Disticts, Refuse Disposal Districts, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

Could we do more -- or at least as much -- with less? No doubt. Does New York really need, and do New Yorkers benefit from, 932 townships, 554 villages, and some 700 seperate School Districts? We think not!

Hopefully, when Governor-elect Spitzer takes office on January 1st, one of the issues he will begin to examine is whether all of this government over the people, by too many people, at great cost to the people, is in the best interest of the people. Concluding that it is not -- no other conclusion being possible -- we trust our new Governor will heed our advice and look, wherever and everywhere, to consolidate government, where it is useful and necessary, and eliminate that which is wasteful and/or has outlived its usefulness.

"Day One, Everything changes." One of those things, if we are to thrive as viable state attractive to both economic and personal growth, must be the very system by which we are governed.
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18th Century System Does Not Reflect Today’s Changing Municipalities

New York State’s laws and historic designation of what constitutes a city, town or village have not changed despite dramatic shifts in the population and character of today’s local governments, according to a report issued today by New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi. As a result, New York’s basic structure of local governments does not match the current needs or circumstances of today’s municipalities.

“Significant changes have occurred since the designations of cities, towns and villages were made, meaning that many local governments are facing 21st Century circumstances while operating under 18th Century rules,” Hevesi said. “State leaders need to examine these issues to fairly address the changing needs of New York’s municipalities.”

The report analyzes the history of municipal structures in New York State, the implications of how these designations affect municipalities today, and illustrates what a modern classification system might look like. The findings of the report were shared with local government experts who provided valuable input to the report.

Local Government Changes

Since 1950, cities in New York State have lost 24 percent of their population while the populations of towns increased by 121 percent.

There are now more big towns in New York than there are big cities. For example, only 12 cities today have a population greater than 50,000, while 21 towns exceed this level.

Ten towns have populations of more than 100,000 people, with four towns larger than Buffalo. While 35 out of 62 cities have populations under 25,000, there are 60 towns and six villages with larger populations.

“We’re so used to our current structures of cities, towns and villages in New York State that we rarely pause to think deliberately about why we're structured the way we are and what difference it makes. This thought-provoking analysis shows us that our government choices are highly significant and very much in need of a fresh look,” Kathryn A. Foster, director, Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth at the University at Buffalo, said. “It’s time to reopen the public dialogue on fundamental governance reform.”

“This report is an extremely important contribution to the ongoing discussion among scholars and policy-makers on the structure, efficiency and effectiveness of local government in New York and the foundations of state/local relations in our state,” said Gerald Benjamin, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of New Paltz. “The cluster analysis used in the research clearly demonstrates that the conventional categories we use in thinking about and legislating for local government in New York rely on distinctions without differences.

There is a basis here for very serious discourse about the need for alteration of the fundamentals of local governance in New York.”

“This analysis focuses attention on the basic structure of local government, including governance, regional planning, shared services, and a number of other issues of interest to the Government Law Center. For example, under the Shared Municipal Services Incentive (SMSI) program, we’re providing regional technical assistance related to consolidations, mergers, dissolutions, cooperation and shared services,” Patricia E. Salkin, associate dean and director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School, said. “We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the State Comptroller’s office on issues in these areas.”

Why Does Classification Matter? The legal definition of a municipality has many implications regarding how a municipality can operate, provide services or receive state aid. For instance:
Revenue sharing and many other forms of local aid are differentiated based on municipal class. This is primarily beneficial to city governments, which often receive greater aid and are generally facing greater needs than most towns or villages.

While major urban towns such as Islip and Cheektowaga face issues similar to big cities, they are not allowed under law to diversify their revenue base in the way that cities can.

The most basic municipal services, such as sewer, water, sanitation and fire protection, in towns are often provided through special districts. These systems are generally built only for a specific area and can result in under utilized and expensive systems as towns become more urbanized.

An Illustrative Method for Grouping Municipalities While New York’s local governments are usually analyzed by specific municipal class, the report used a statistical research technique known as a cluster analysis to illustrate an alternative method to classify municipalities. A cluster analysis is a statistical technique that groups entities into clusters that have similar characteristics based on structural, demographic and financial attributes of these localities, such as population, land area, median family income, median house values, poverty rate, government expenditures, costs for public safety and transportation services, and property taxes, among other variables.

The analysis revealed that, while there are similarities among local governments within a class, there are more differences that are not taken into account in New York’s existing system. From the analysis, five major clusters or classifications emerged, which include:

Major Urban Centers: Six cities and 13 towns were classified as major urban centers. They had average populations of more than 200,000, covered nearly 70 square miles, had a relatively high level of poverty (11 percent), and higher than average tax rates. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Amherst, Brookhaven, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Clarkstown, Hempstead, Ramapo and Rochester.

Smaller Urban Centers (Upstate and Downstate): Two clusters emerged in this category, which were separated along regional lines upstate and downstate. These groups include most of the state’s small cities and villages that average only three to five miles in size. While these municipalities are densely populated, the small urban centers downstate are more than twice as dense as those located upstate. Smaller urban centers upstate included 46 cities, 192 villages and two towns, while the smaller urban centers downstate included six cities, 87 villages and 14 towns. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Peekskill, Mamaronek, Larchmont, Tonawanda, Kingston, Oswego, Alfred, Fredonia and Saranac Lake.

Surburbs. This grouping, which includes three cities, 71 villages and 172 towns, has relatively low population density, newer housing and the lowest average property taxes. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Saratoga Springs, Geneva, Fishkill, Riverhead, Schodack, Orchard Park and Onondaga.

Rural. This is the largest cluster of municipalities, including 610 towns and only six villages, which average about 3,700 residents with less than 100 residents per square mile. They tend to coverage a large geographic area (average 51 square miles) and have fairly low tax rates.

For a breakdown of each cluster by individual municipality, see pages 7-14 of the report.

“Starting from scratch, no one would design the system that has evolved in New York today,” Mark Pattison, deputy comptroller for local government services and economic development for the State Comptroller’s office. “Our office will continue to focus on issues such as this to generate needed discussion and work towards critical changes in our governmental system.”

Facts About New York’s Local Governments

Currently there are more than 4,200 local governments, including 932 towns, 554 villages, 62 cities, 57 counties outside of New York City and 700 school districts. The vast majority of cities, towns and villages were formed during the 1800s and there have been almost no changes since the 1920s. For instance, only three cities have been created since 1920. The total number of towns has not changed since 1900. Since 1920, 122 villages were created and 37 were dissolved.

Click here for a copy of the Comptroller's report

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

So THAT'S Where Our Tax Dollars Went!

Info On Member Item Pork Trickles Out Of Albany

The New York Times and the Associated Press both had stories this week about the fabled, and now infamous secret spending of our State Legislators, reporting publicly, for the first time, on how much of your tax dollars went where and to whom as "member item" grants.

The Assembly, controlled by the Democrats, was heavy on the pork, and even Sheldon Silver (who keeps Kosher, at least back on the Lower East Side), was seen bringing home the bacon.

Over in the Senate chambers, ruled by the Republicans, you can be sure that Joe Bruno & Company will be seen as having wrestled down a few of those pigs ("pulled pork, anyone?") when the Senate's member item grant data is released sometime in December.

The problem is not one of party, but rather, of a system that operates out of the public eye and without oversight, self-imposed or otherwise.

Clearly, the leadership of both houses are like kids in a candy store, grabbing handfuls of jaw breakers and what used to be penny candy but now, with interest, cost us, the taxpayer, $1.99.

Mind you, much of this "pork" is good -- mighty tasty, even. Nothing wrong, in the least, in funding museums, civic projects, and initiatives that benefit the entire community.

In fact, not one of the items listed in the articles that follow -- save, perhaps, $2000 for a Doll and Toy Museum and $1000 for a monument to sand workers -- strikes us as imprudent.

It is the "behind closed doors" process, and a total lack of accountability that concern us, things we hope will go by the wayside as member items come out of the closet and into public view.

Hmmm. $386,000 to the Chinese-American Planning Council? That's an awful lot of spare ribs!

We wonder if there's any money in the member item pot for community-minded blogs?
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Assembly lists its pork projects
Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- New Yorkers just paid for an exercise program for senior citizens in Tuckahoe, endowed a chair in labor studies in New York City, and funded teleconference visits with prisoners near Rochester.

It's all part of the pork-barrel spending over the last four years released late Monday by the Assembly. [Click HERE to see Assembly Reports.]

The projects are for social services, prison programs, senior citizens centers, arts programs and more all directed to local groups in lawmakers' home districts. But they add up to more than $200 million a year in spending, more going to majority party lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly.

Good-government groups have said the spending, which they call "pork," is often used to buy votes and to perpetuate the power of incumbents in Albany where the vast majority of lawmakers win re-election.

But now, for the first time, New Yorkers can see which lawmakers bestowed the taxpayers' largesse on which local projects.

A week ago, the Republican-led Senate posted the names of lawmakers and the pork barrel projects they sponsored the past two fiscal years.

A state judge last month ordered leaders of the state Legislature to disclose the names of lawmakers who decide how $170 million in taxpayer money is spent on pet projects in their home districts.

Details of the grants - which include money for museums, charities, schools and other causes - were posted on the Senate's web site Wednesday under "Senate Reports." The list includes thousands of grants along with the lawmaker who requested the funding in fiscal years 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. Information on more years will be posted later, according to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's office.

The Assembly's thousands of projects include:
-$1.62 million for bilingual economic development and outreach in New York City.
-$800,000 for homeless outreach in New York City.
-$309,000 to the State University of New York at Buffalo for construction to comply with "gender equity requirements" in sports programs.
-$100,000 to establish the Betty Shabazz Chair at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York to be "a platform for addressing adversity and empowering victims of violence."
-$500,000 to enhance worker education program and fund faculty in labor studies at CUNY.
-$5,000 for Bobbi and the Strays, a pet adoption service in Ozone Park.
-$15,000 for a sewer project at the Yates County Fairgrounds.
-$229,000 for academics and career counseling for prison inmates.
-$131,000 for a parenting and visitation program for women inmates at Albion prison and to support teleconference visits for prisoners' families.
-$25,000 for the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce in Queens.
-$35,000 to revitalize the Norwood Shopping District in the Bronx.
-Hundreds of thousands of dollars in individual grants to aid several local programs to provide alternatives to prison for drug offenders.
-$1,000 to the Tuckahoe Senior Citizens for a weekly exercise program.
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Assembly Lists Recipients of Funds for Pet Projects

ALBANY, Nov. 27 — The New York State Assembly made public its full list of pet legislative projects late Monday afternoon, giving taxpayers the clearest view yet of how lawmakers have spent $85 million a year on thousands of local initiatives that critics have derided as pork-barrel spending.

The Assembly, which has long resisted releasing details about such spending, disclosed the list under order from a State Supreme Court judge who ruled last month in a lawsuit brought by The Times Union of Albany.

The release of the material did not end the legal battle over the information. A lawyer for the Hearst Corporation, the publisher of The Times Union, said Monday night that the format was so cumbersome and unmanageable that the company would return to court if the Assembly did not provide the information in a way that would be easier to analyze.

“It’s not usable, readable information,” said Eve Burton, a lawyer for Hearst. “It’s not data the way the court ordered it, so that consumers can use it. If they do not comply immediately with usable data, we’re going back to the judge to seek relief.”

“There is a deliberate attempt not to provide the public with the information,” she added.
The computer files made available by the Assembly included thousands of pages listing various projects, but the files were configured in a way that prevents them from being searchable without considerable technical processing.

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for the Democrats who control the Assembly, said he was not aware of any problems.

Each year, the Legislature sets aside $200 million for such projects — $85 million for the Assembly, $85 million for the Senate and $30 million for the governor. The projects, known as member items, have been criticized by budget watchdogs because there is no public debate on how useful they are, there is little accounting for how the money is spent, and the system allows
the leaders to keep members in the dark about who they are favoring.

Member items are also a basic tool used by the legislative leaders to enforce loyalty in their parties and to protect vulnerable members. Defiant lawmakers are routinely given smaller amounts, while endangered incumbents often get larger ones. Watchdog groups say the leaders’ tightly controlled allocation of the $200 million stifles democracy.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, has been extremely reluctant to reveal how his chamber spends money for local initiatives, and part of the reason was clear enough after the Assembly’s list was released. Mr. Silver, who controls the chamber’s purse strings, doled out far more money for such projects than any of his Assembly colleagues: More than $7 million in the current fiscal year, of the more than $50 million that the Assembly has already earmarked, was for Mr. Silver alone.

In the current fiscal year, he put money into Jewish and Chinese groups that are key constituents in his Lower East Side district, including three items for a total of nearly half a million dollars to the United Jewish Council of the East Side, $100,000 to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and three items totaling $386,000 to the Chinese-American Planning Council.

“These are important organizations that are involved in civic and community and cultural work,” Mr. Carrier said.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican, has also been reluctant to release a central list of the projects his members’ finance, but his staff has said he will not do so until next month, in a response to the judge’s ruling.

Over all, Assembly-financed projects for the current fiscal year ranged from millions of dollars in legal aid to the poor to an array of oddities, with the majority Democrats claiming most of the funds. Assemblyman Darrel J. Aubertine, a Democrat from northern New York, gave $10,000 to replace aging wire mesh on a mountain lion’s cage at a state zoo in Watertown.

Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, a Democrat from Brooklyn, provided $2,000 for the Doll and Toy Museum of New York City, located in Brooklyn. Assemblyman Tom Kirwan, a Republican from Newburgh, gave $2,500 to repair a church boiler.

On Long Island, Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Democrat, provided $1,000 for a monument to the sand miners local workers who unearthed the sand used in New York City sidewalks.

Most of the grants were to well-known institutions and popular causes — cancer and AIDS charities, Little Leagues, town halls and fire departments — though the amounts of money each received often seemed to be proportional to the clout of their sponsoring legislators, rather than need.

Mr. Carrier said two-thirds of the Assembly majority’s member items were used to offset cuts to programs made by Gov. George E. Pataki in his budget proposal.

The move on Monday by the Assembly came after legislative leaders have fought for years to keep such spending secret. Legislators individually publicize many of the projects because they want credit for them back home, and there are ways to gain access to some of the information. But lacking central lists of all the thousands of projects, it has been difficult to track how public money is used for local initiatives.

In June, the Hearst Corporation sued the leaders of the majority parties in the Senate and Assembly after they refused to turn over records of their member items, despite requests filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, the minority leaders in both chambers, and the staff of Governor Pataki, complied with similar requests.

As recently as the 1990s, member items were delineated in the budget itself, though without the names of the sponsoring legislators. That ended after Mr. Silver accused Mr. Pataki of singling out Democratic items for veto. Legislative leaders have been extremely reluctant to make them fully public, in part because it would mean that their members could compare and contrast how much each one of them gets.

In October, Justice Robert A. Sackett of State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature must reveal how the money is spent. In his decision, Justice Sackett said the Legislature had “failed to articulate a rational basis for redacting the names,” adding, “the public has a right to know.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Live From Stony Brook. . .

. . .Three Men In A Room (with refreshments)

The New York Public Interest Research Group Speaker Series
The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal
in an American Statehouse

With author and former New York State Senator
Dr. Seymour Lachman
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
12:30 PM – 2:00 PM
Student Union Ballroom
Book signing to follow
Light refreshments will be served

"Just three men hold virtually all the cards; the Governor, the Speaker, and the Majority Leader." --Dr. Seymour Lachman
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Click HERE for more about NYPIRG

Democracy Comes To Hewlett-Woodmere

But Not Now, December 5th!

Award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, host of the daily, grassroots, global, radio/TV news hour Democracy Now!, is on a national speaking tour to mark DN!'s 10th anniversary and launch her second book with journalist David Goodman, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.

WHEN: Tuesday, December 5th @ 8 p.m.
WHERE: Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library
located at 1125 Broadway
Hewlett, New York 11557
Click here for directions
DESCRIPTION: Amy Goodman will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Five Towns Forum
TICKETS: The event is free and open to the public
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So, what's happening in your community? We rely on you to act as the eyes and ears of your hometown and to keep us in the loop as we keep everyone in the know. E-mail The Community Alliance at

Monday, November 27, 2006

Billions for New York's Public Authorities. . .

. . .Not One Cent for Accountability to the Taxpayers

In the waning days of the Pataki administration, New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi reports on an authorization of some $11 billion in funding as approved by the Public Authorities Control Board [a misnomer, if there ever was one].

Yes, "Day One, Everything Changes..." Too bad Governor Spitzer won't have any money on hand to pay for it!

And you were worried about Hevesi's use of a State employee to drive his ailing wife to and from appointments with doctors. . .

Board Rushing to Authorize Extraordinary $11 Billion in Project Funding in Last Days of Pataki Administration

The Public Authorities Control Board, which has approved an average of less than half a billion dollars in projects per meeting for the last year, is rushing through projects totaling $11.4 billion in October and November, with billions more expected in December, New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi said last week. On November 15, Hevesi sent a letter to the members of the PACB warning them about the extraordinary amount of authorizations on the agendas.

“New York State is already suffering under huge amounts of debt, and now in the last days of the current administration, there is a rush to push through billions of dollars of projects that will load the State with billions more in debt, in many cases without getting a proper review,” Hevesi said.

“It is wrong to limit the freedom of the new administration through rushed last minute decisions,” Hevesi said. “The State should take the proper amount of time to make certain that it is entering into sound fiscal commitments that have been thoroughly vetted and analyzed with the PACB as the last step in the process of reviewing a final and complete plan. Also, the Spitzer administration should be given the opportunity to include these projects in a comprehensive plan. This is especially important since Governor-elect Spitzer has said economic development is a priority and much of this financing is for that purpose.

“I’m not suggesting that any of these projects are not worthy or should be blocked. But when they are rushed through in a long list, it is impossible to know if they are as good as they can be,” Hevesi said. “Many of the projects being considered are complex financing agreements that would benefit from more, not less public debate. For example, in April 2005, my Office raised many questions about the Ridge Hill project in Yonkers. As a result, when it was eventually passed, it was revised to provide an annual revenue stream of $6.5 million for more than 70 years for the taxpayers and the people of Yonkers.”

Hevesi said the rush is particularly questionable since many of these projects may not start for years. Some of the projects slated to be approved by the PACB were included in the 2006-07 enacted budget, which added an enormous $16.4 billion to the State’s debt, including $11.8 billion for which the State is directly responsible. Total State-funded debt is projected to increase to nearly $65 billion by 2010-11, or a 33 percent rise over five years.

“The PACB was created to provide oversight over the financial transactions and issuance of debt by 11 public authorities, particularly debt for which the State would be responsible to repay. As such, its final approvals should be completed as close as possible to the time the debt will be issued and only after agencies have developed full financial and operational plans for the funds that they have shared with the Board,” Hevesi said. “By authorizing these projects so early in the process, the PACB is in many cases abdicating its responsibility.”

The PACB agenda for October included $4.7 billion in projects, of which $3.7 billion was State debt and the remainder was for a mix of grants, loans and private debt financings. All were approved. (The Moynihan Station project which was voted down is not included in the $4.7 billion.) For the November meeting, which was scheduled for last week but postponed, the agenda includes $6.7 billion, of which $3.9 billion is new State debt, $1.7 billion is refunding of State debt and most of the remainder is private debt. By comparison, PACB authorized an average of $469 million per meeting between September 2005 and September 2006, and had only two meetings where the agenda barely exceeded $1 billion.

Hevesi raised concern about the amount of debt being authorized at the end of an administration, particularly, he said, because many projects for which funding is being approved are not going to start in the near term and because market conditions are not favorable for all of the refundings being authorized. For example, the PACB has been asked to authorize the Dormitory Authority to issue more than $700 million to refund personal income tax bonds, but under current market conditions only about $65 million of bonds can be refunded and produce actual savings.

“Rushing these projects through before the clock strikes midnight will make it very difficult to put New York back on the right track,” Hevesi said. “The PACB plays a potentially important role in ensuring that the state’s debt is issued at the right time for the right purposes. Now is not the time to write blank checks to public authorities that the new administration will be unable to revise or cancel.”

Comptroller Hevesi’s comprehensive debt reform program, issued in February 2005, would limit the State’s issuance of debt. It includes reforms to the PACB that would require more transparency and accountability. For example, it would require PACB approval for all State public authorities, increasing the number of authorities being reviewed from 11 to 200. It would also require substantially more reporting on all debt deals approved.
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Click here for a historical chart showing the authorizations on PACB agendas

Click here for a copy of the November 15, 2006 letter

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

If God Had Wanted Us To Pay Property Taxes. . .

. . .He Would Have Taxed The Church!

We can hear the banter at Hempstead Town Hall now... "Oh, there goes Tax Assessor, Harvey Levinson, again. Raising taxes. And now, he wants to tax the church..."

Actually, if you read through a press release recently issued by the office of the Nassau County Assessor, as republished below, the idea is to fix glaring inequities in the law that permit certain members of the clergy to pay less in property taxes on houses owned by them than others who own similarly valued houses.

Still, as long as we're talking about taxing the rich (and since we've already wrung every last dime out of the poor and middle class), why not tax ALL real property owned by religious institutions.

After all, who owns more real estate in New York than anybody else? Okay, other than the Arabs and the Japanese. Right. The Catholic church. And all of it, every God-blessed square foot, is exempt from the property tax. "Holy Sepluchar, Batman!"

By what divine right does the church think it is above paying property taxes? All right, the IRS says they don't have to pay income taxes on all the money they collect as tithe, in those gold-gilded plates they pass around, or as rent in the run-down hovels they own, but property taxes? For God's sake, man.

Come to think of it, isn't exempting religious institutions (collectively, the "church") just another way the government subsidizes parochial interests? A subsidy that mocks the seperation of church and state at its very core!

Most of us are now getting hit by that dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax. Why not an Altar Boy Minimum Tax for members of the clergy? In the Catholic church, they can call it "Pay-to-Play!"

Tax those houses owned by members of the cloth, why don't you? And not only clerics of the church, but those terror-crazed Imans, too. And don't forget the Jews. Heck, they already control Wall Street (Bloomberg), Albany (Spitzer, Silver), and Hollywood (Mel Gibson), so why not make some money off of it? Think about it -- in the Five Towns alone, where everyone is a rabbi (at least for tax purposes), and every third house is deemed a synagogue (and why not?) -- making "those people" pay property taxes on their houses would reap millions for the County, Town and school districts. [Not to mention all the cash that would be taken in by the Sanitary Districts, so they can add on those "extra trucks during Passover" to pick up all the leftover bread!]

Yeah. "Chosen People," my tuchas. You've been chosen, all right. Chosen to pay your full share of property taxes!

Now, let's get one thing straight. Religious institutions -- from church, to mosque, to synagogue -- are NOT not-for-profit. They're making a bundle (they don't call it the "arch" Diocese for nothing) -- not the least of which comes from real estate owned, but not appearing on the tax rolls.

When the church complains that it can't make ends meet, maybe we'll call in the UJA to raise some money. Until then, tax the church. If you own property -- be it residential, commercial, or held in the name of the Almighty (if "God shall provide," let Him pay my property tax bill) -- you pay property taxes on it. Period!

The time has come to stick it to the holier-than-thou crowd. Pay up or shut up. Charity, after all, truly begins at home, and the Tax Assessor is going to start with your home, Mr. Clergyman.

And whether you're a Bishop, Rabbi, Iman or Pastor, ordained after years of study or last week by mail order, you're gonna have to dig deep into your pockets to pay the tax man -- just like us ordinary, God-fearing homeowners who get stuck footing the bill for those who own millions (billions?) of dollars in real property but pay not one cent in property taxes.

"Look, Monsignor. You see where there was only one set of property tax bills in the mail? That's where the rest of us were carrying you..."

And while we're at it, let's tax Telicare, too. "Pay up, God Squad. And you too, Church Lady. No more freeloading at the taxpayers' expense. If we have to endure this slop on cable, you have to help support our infrastructure, our public schools, and those garbage trucks that pick up the trash outside the rectory."

Maybe Albany will take up Harvey's call to equalize property taxes among the clergy. [Will those who live in glass houses have to pay more?] But if you think our Legislature will ever amend the law to lift the property tax exemption on real estate owned, say, by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, well, then, to paraphrase Billy Graham as he embarked on his last crusade, "You haven't got a prayer..."
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A recent analysis conducted by Assessor Harvey Levinson of the Clergy Property Tax Exemption offered in Nassau County, revealed that 267 members of the clergy are not paying any school property taxes on homes valued at $600,000 dollars or less, while 83 members of the clergy who own homes valued over $600,000 dollars are paying school property taxes that vary from .11 cents to over $29,000.

As the state’s clergy exemption law was written, real property owned by members of the clergy is exempt from school property taxes to the extent of $1,500 dollars in assessed value. The problem, according to Assessor Levinson, was created when the previous administration was mandated by the New York State Supreme Court to lower the level of assessment (the percentage of the full market value of a home that is used to calculate property taxes) to one quarter of one percent to comply with the provisions of the court settlement requiring the county to capture the full market value of all residential properties without violating Real Property Tax Law that caps assessment increases at 6% each year or 20% over five years.

Assessor Levinson explained that any qualifying home with an assessed value of $600,000 would be taxed at one quarter of one percent or $1,500. Once the $1,500 exemption was applied, the clergy members’ property tax obligation was reduced to zero.

“Clearly the intent of the legislation was not to grant a total exemption,” stated Assessor Levinson. “If you look elsewhere throughout the state, the various levels of assessment imposed by other assessing jurisdictions results in some amount of property taxes being paid by members of the clergy. That is why I am calling on state lawmakers to amend state law to allow a total clergy exemption of 20% of the assessed value – similar to the 10% Volunteer Firefighters Exemption. I also believe that the exemption should be income-based so that clergy members with high annual income levels (possibly above $100,000 dollars) receive less.”

In examining a number of towns and cities throughout the state, Assessor Levinson discovered clergy exemption amounts that varied from 31.25% of assessed value in the Town of Huntington; 2.09% in the Town of Islip; 0.25% in the City of Jamestown; and, 0.27% in the City of Syracuse. The level of assessment for these assessing jurisdictions where, respectively, .80%, 11.98%, 100%, and 93.50%.

“Another troubling fact is that the law allows husband and wife ministers who own the same property to double the amount of their exemption,” Assessor Levinson stated. “One notable husband and wife minister family who owns a home in Old Westbury valued at $2.2 million dollars is being granted a clergy exemption totaling $20,200.83 dollars for the 2006-2007 school tax year. Is this policy fair?

“That is why I am calling on state lawmakers to conduct a comprehensive review of this and other provisions of NYS Real Property Tax Law, so that fair and sensible standards that reflect the true intent of the law can be adopted in the next legislative session,” concluded Assessor Levinson. “There is no reason why a clergy member in one part of the state should be granted a greater property tax exemption than other parts of the state.”
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A blessed Thanksgiving, one and all.

The Community Alliance blog returns, in full force, after the holiday weekend. Pass the turkey, please, and don't spare the trimmings...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Does Your State Legislator Make The Grade?

Public Policy Group Beats Drum Loudly Up In Albany

We often wonder (or at least we should), "How did my State Legislator vote on this issue or that?"

Well, someone has been tracking the votes in the Assembly and the Senate on key issues ranging from Auto Insurance fraud reform to Health Insurance reform.

The survey, conducted by Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank "providing ideas that fuel the progressive movement" (right away, you're thinking "liberal"), attempted to focus on so-called "middle class" issues -- and, yes, the slant is decidedly, well, "progressive."

Concerned with matters that rum the gamut -- from affordable housing to affording college -- DMI stands on the forefront of holding public policy makers -- including the folks in Albany -- accountable to the people who pay the bills (that would be us, in case you haven't noticed).

Check out DMI's reports, including those on your legislators' votes in the Assembly and the Senate.

DMI is taking a forward look at pending issues, and keeping a keen eye on the men and women who, as our elected representatives, shape our future.

Whatever your point of view, whether leaning left, right, or headed straight down the middle, the time has come to open our minds and set our course to new ideas and renewed ideals, up in Albany, and here at home on our Long Island.

Monday, November 20, 2006

State Senate Post Mortem . . .

. . . Or, Breathing New Life Into The Same Old Issues

The election may be over, but the problems remain the same. Property taxes, school funding, and that legislative "fix" they call borrow and spend still vex New Yorkers.

While everything may change at the Governor's mansion come Day One, in the State Legislature, everything remains pretty much the same as it has been for the past decade or more.

Thankfully, while the campaigning may have come to an end, the voices for change have not been silenced. Far from it, in fact.

Today, Odelia Goldberg, Democratic candidate for Senate in New York's 9th Senatorial District [the seat kept warm for going on 23 years now by the Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, Dean Skelos] opines on what many of us knew, but voters, for whatever reason, may have missed.

We invite, of course, Senator Skelos to respond in kind (or not so kind), and to "deliver" discourse of his own. Equal time in the name of community good is made available to all!
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And I Thought Pork* Wasn't Kosher
Odelia Goldberg, Candidate for the NYS Senate

Running on a platform of bringing home the bacon (also not Kosher last I checked), Senator Dean Skelos won his seat back this election cycle. To say that I learned a lot and met some amazing people is an understatement. But these were not the reasons I ran. I put together a fierce and effective campaign in order to bring out the problems facing our community: Sky-high property taxes, hostile business climate, failing schools, out-of-control health costs, $13 billion two-year deficit (with approved future spending hikes), and corrupt atmosphere in Albany, to name a few.

I'm thrilled to say that my efforts did not go unnoticed. In early September, the Senate Majority agreed to provide an itemized list of their Member Items (aka pork). Most will be shocked to find out that for 2006 only $1.1M made its way to my district, all of Southwest Nassau. Lawrence and Inwood received NOTHING. Hewlett got about $100,000 and Woodmere $12,000. Where did the rest of the money go? Not to our communities. I can only guess that Skelos gave it to other Senators in an effort to gain popularity among his peers in the Senate Majority.

However, my opponent ran his campaign on one message -- I deliver. At no point in his multiple flyers did he say how he would address any of our issues. At no point was there even an indication that we have any problems. We were inundated with what was given to us, sometimes as old as ten years ago. I wonder what Skelos' message will be when the Senate is Democrat controlled (only 3 seats away) and Skelos gets little or nothing to give out.

Truth be told, I'm still waiting to see what it is we're getting, although I hear a lot about it (mostly in taxpayer-funded flyers and newsletters). I have a hunch as to what we're getting from our Senator, although not pork per se, it definitely isn't Kosher.

*Pork, also called member items (MOU) or community funds, is taxpayer money given to elected officials to fund pet-projects; thinly disguised campaign pieces.
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Sound a bit like sour grapes? More like bitter herbs! Still, the dialogue needs to begin somewhere. And no better place than right here, on The Community Alliance blog.

Candidates, past and future, as well as elected officials, serving or having served, are welcome to post thoughts, comments and Guest Blogs on The Community Alliance blog. In fact, everyone is encouraged to do so.

Hey, its your community. Make the most of it!

Friday, November 17, 2006

NY Dems: Hold On To Your Lawn Signs. . .

. . . Here Comes Joe Mondello

When this blogger first got word that Nassau County Republican Committee Chair, Joseph Mondello (not only his picture is fuzzy), had his eye on the State's top GOP post (which, come January, will no longer be Governor), I both laughed and gasped at the same time. [Try doing that while standing on your head and drinking a Yoohoo...]

Joe Mondello, lynchpin of the Nassau County GOP machine; king over the fiefdoms at the County (and town) special districts; orchestrator of the near fatal dissent of America's wealthiest county into the financial abyss; the man who brought you Tom Gulotta, Kate Murray, and the two Peters (King and Schmitt).

Yes, that Joe Mondello. Losing it all but for his Svengali-like stranglehold over Town of Hempstead voters (who must all have brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and fifth cousins three times removed somewhere on the Town payroll), and those entrenched State Senate seats that never seem to shift, come high tide or high taxes, Mondello would now do for the State of New York what he has done for Nassau County.

Hold on to your hats, New Yorkers. Better still, hold on to your lawn signs. Once Mondello takes the top GOP spot, as it appears he will (desperate times call for even more desperate measures), no Democrat is safe from having her lawn sign stolen or defaced, and no taxpayer's wallet secure from the smoke and mirrors politics that good old Joe is famous for here on Long Island -- the kind that willingly borrows, carelessly spends, and never raises taxes to cover the bet.

Say it isn't so, Joe! With all you'll have to do as State Chair, surely you'll have to give up the post as Chair of the Nassau County Republican Committee. Even your fellow GOPers say that holding both jobs would be imprudent (as enticing as drawing upon the patronage of both tills may seem to be).

So, as you slough off to give the rest of the State a taste of Nassau GOPolitics, who will take the helm in Westbury?

Maybe you can call on Hempstead Town Attorney, Joe Ra. After all, what's another hat on the head? Town Attorney; Counsel to Sanitary District 6; GOP Committeeman. Surely, one more job would look grand on the resume.

Perhaps Al D'Amato will make a comeback. A second wind for that seat on the isle. The mansion in Lido Beach is all but complete, save a variance or two from the Town Zoning Board ( and surely, Katuria has taken care of that).

Of course, if and when Joe reluctantly yields his Nassau County GOP post, it will likely go to his second in command, Party spokesman and Town of Hempstead Councilman, Anthony Santino.

Reached at Ruth Chris' Steakhouse, where he was dining with Commissioners from the Town's Sanitary District 1, Santino told The Community Alliance, "Nassau County Republicans would gladly pay twice their annual tithe to the Party just to have me as Chair. As for homeowners, why, they enjoy paying more, getting less, and being taken up, down and sideways by a system of government that should have died out with the Neanderthals... Hey, pass the steak sauce, will ya?"

Santino as heir apparent? But of course.

Who, then (dare we ask) will become Town of Hempstead Supervisor, this when Kate Murray steps down (shortly before election so that the Republican-controlled Town Board can appoint her successor) for a judgeship or a run for Attorney General? [Given her proclivity to use the mails, Postmaster General might be a better fit for Kate!]

Pass another hat to Joe Ra. Our hunch is that the nod would go to Mark Bonilla, the Hempstead Town Clerk. Never discount the Hispanic vote, and the GOP will need it, desperately, if the Party hopes to continue its winning ways on Long Island.

Kidding aside (can anybody take any of these goings-on seriously?), when it comes to organization and control -- make that absolute, Totalitarian control -- no one does it better than Joe Mondello. Give the man credit for that much. All of the ducks lined up in a row, ready to march into Hell (or up to Albany, whichever is doling out more money at the moment) upon a second's notice.

The State GOP is a mess. A party in utter disarray. Someone called it chaos (where is Maxwell Smart when you need him?) For all of his flaws and shortcomings, as exposed to the electorate, on this blog and elsewhere, Joe Mondello is the best person -- perhaps the only person -- who could turn New York's Republican Party around.

And who knows? Come 2010, long after Nassau County residents had either forgotten the fiscal foibles of the Republican monolith or moved to the Carolinas, and Uncle Joe has sloganized us with "the new New York," we could well be looking at lawn signs that read, Tom Gulotta For Governor.

Guard "Row A" with your lives, New York Democrats, and cue the balloons.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

He Can Do It, Because He's Done It . . .

. . . And Tom Suozzi Should Be Called Upon To Do It Again

For those who do not regularly read the Daily News -- which is probably most of us on Long Island (we read Newsday, every day ;-), a column appeared today that is well worth a look-see by us, and more than a passing glance by Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer.

Truth is, if the new Governor is going to "fix Albany," then the fixin's bar needs to include the voices of Long Islanders. And the voice of Nassau County Exec, Tom Suozzi, should be heard in Albany, if not above the others, then certainly, among them.

Whether it is having a true ally in the field to take on the evils of property taxes, school funding, Medicaid fraud and reckless legislative spending, or simply a matter of "keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer," Governor Spitzer would be well served by having Tom Suozzi in his camp. And so would we, as the centurions of our Long Island.
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by Bill Hammond


Before he goes to battle with the state Legislature - as he inevitably will - Eliot Spitzer should make peace with Tom Suozzi.

The governor-elect is standing tall for now, thanks to his record-setting 69% victory over Republican John Faso. That's an undeniable mandate for change in state government, leaving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, the guardians of business as usual in Albany, no choice but to kiss his ring and promise their cooperation.

But it's only a matter of time before this uncomfortable three-way honeymoon blows up - probably in January, when Spitzer follows through on his promises to make major cuts in Medicaid, redistribute school funding and clean up Albany sleaze.

At that point, the new Sheriff of Albany will need to deputize as many allies as he can for the big showdown with the defenders of the status quo. And Suozzi is one gunslinger who belongs in his posse.

The Nassau County executive, once a rising star in state politics, suffered a humiliating 82%-18% loss to Spitzer in the Democratic primary this September. But Spitzer can learn plenty from his former punching bag - because Suozzi is the only politician alive today who defeated the Bruno-Silver tag team in a fair fight.

I'm referring to his "Fix Albany" campaign, which began in 2003 when he vowed to shake up New York's dysfunctional state government by defeating a majority member of each house of the Legislature, a Democrat in the Assembly and a Republican in the Senate. It looked like political suicide - until, in 2004, Suozzi actually made good on his threat, helping take out Assemblyman David Sidikman of Nassau and GOP Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffmann of Onondaga County.

Within a few months, Bruno and Silver had cried uncle on Suozzi's key demand, which was a cap on what localities have to contribute to the Medicaid budget. That change - "Suozzi's law," it should be called - is saving property taxpayers billions and forcing Albany to take responsibility for soaring health-care costs.

Suozzi built his winning crusade on two key strategies, both of which Spitzer should emulate.

First, Suozzi connected the dots for average New Yorkers between brainless, corrupt decision-making in Albany - on issues that seem remote to their everyday lives - and the very real sucking sound they hear when they open their tax bills.

Second, Suozzi connected the dots for lawmakers between the votes they cast in Albany and the votes they could lose at the ballot box the next election.

Spitzer will need to use both tactics if he wants to push his ambitious agenda through a reluctant Legislature infamous for gridlock, inertia and slavish obedience to special interests.

Fortunately, he seems to get it. After his first post-victory meeting with legislative leaders, Spitzer said he was ready to "rally the public" if necessary to win the big fights. If that's his strategy, he should draft Suozzi as his field general. He's an articulate critic of Albany dysfunction, and he's got all the chutzpah he needs to pick fights with powerful pols. As Suozzi said on the campaign trail this fall, "I can do it because I've done it."
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NEXT UP: If Joe Mondello becomes State GOP Chair, can Tom Gulotta for Governor be too far behind?

One, Two Punch For Illegal Housing

Malverne Mayor Teams With Nassau Assessor To Stem The Tide In Village

Illegal accessory apartments in single family homes. Long understood to be the bane of suburbia, and labeled by elected officials, from Albany to Hempstead Town, as a "scourge" upon community.

Eroding the tax base, overburdening local services, artificially inflating home valves (and with them, assessments), and an ever-present danger to life, limb, and property, localities have struggled over the years to find practical solutions to both the root cause (lack of affordable housing) and its entagling symptoms.

Amending code provisions and adding new ones, upping the fines, creating new "indicia" for enforcement, "nail and mail" summons service, empowering local building inspectors. Some good moves, others superfluous. And still, not so much as a dent made in the illegal apartment equivalent of the war in Iraq. Indeed, the problem worsens, and threatens to evolve into a battle celebre between homeowners who reap the benefit of renting illegally and law-abiding homeowners who have to pick up the property tax tab.

Enter Anthony Panzarella, Mayor of the Village of Malverne, and our old friend, Harvey Levinson, Chair of the Nassau County Board of Assessors, who have launched, in the Mayor's words (as told to Newsday), "the most stringent illegal housing penalties and enforcement measures on Long Island."

Combining rigid enforcement, including fines equal to double the amount of rent collected in a year, and reclassification of illegally rented single family homes as commercial properties for assessment purposes, the village hopes to gain the upper hand on the illegal housing front.

Indeed, for the first time, local authorities will work with County officials to tackle the problem, something that has been discussed in the past , ad nauseum, but never acted upon.

"I will not allow under my watch the demise of our village and the way of life that people moved here to enjoy," Mayor Panzarella told Newsday. [Actually, the Newsday article, if we read it correctly, appears to attribute the quote ro Harvey Levinson, which makes no sense. Okay, so its not the Long Island Press. :-)]

Whether this joint effort will make a difference -- or even a dent -- remains to be seen. Do keep in mind, neighboring communities (particularly you folks in unincorporated areas of the township), that water seeks its own level. Even muddy water. If they can't rent out a basement apartment in Malverne, you can be sure they'll be looking to rent in Elmont, Franklin Square, Rockville Centre and West Hempstead.

And the concurrent problem -- a major cause of the need for illegal rentals -- persists: the lack of affordable housing. This is the third prong, together with local enforcement and county reclassification, that must be forged if the illegal apartment dilemma is to be adequately and appropriately addressed on Long Island. [Folks, we need to talk "downtown," "density," and "demographics," adopting a "smart growth" approach, before all that is left of suburbia are gutted out brownfields inhabited by squatters and overrun by homeless families living out of shopping carts.]

Now is the time for other municipalities, including the Town of Hempstead, to get into the act; to join forces with the County Assessor and put some muscle behind the promise to "use every weapon in our arsenal" to end the scourge. So far, the big guns -- and even the little ones -- have been eerily silent.

Monday, November 13, 2006

New Chief, Same Old Indians Opines on Day One With A Legislature That Rarely Ever Changes

by Erika Rosenberg

New York voters sent a mixed message in the 2006 election – we gave Eliot Spitzer, the man promising “Day One: Everything Changes,’’ 65 percent of our votes, a new record in gubernatorial elections. Then we sent him almost the very same Legislature to work with on changing everything.

For all that we complain about the state Legislature, just one of 212 incumbents appears to have lost in a close race – Republican Sen. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers. Three other incumbents had been defeated in primary races -- not exactly a show of voter anger.

Anger was more of a factor in congressional races, after the Iraq war and scandals in the Republican-controlled Congress fired up voters. Voters sent two incumbent Republicans packing – Sue Kelly of Westchester County and John Sweeney of Saratoga County – and elected a Democrat to what had been Republican Sherwood Boehlert’s seat in the Utica area. But three other Republicans faced tough races and survived – Randy Kuhl of the Southern Tier, Jim Walsh from Syracuse and Tom Reynolds from the Buffalo area.

We at the Center for Governmental Research worked to raise the profile of issues in this year’s gubernatorial campaign through our New York Matters project. We did a statewide poll of residents, profiled the concerns of each area of the state, launched a new web site (, and held public forums in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York City and Long Island to bring residents, policy experts and decision-makers together.

We learned that New Yorkers are mad about taxes, worried about the economy and forever concerned that schools provide children with good education. We also learned that the strength of these concerns varies by region – in New York City, residents aren’t as upset over taxes, and in the Big Apple along with the Hudson Valley, they’re not fretting quite as much about the economy as in the rest of the state.

Here is the puzzle: If you went by our poll, Spitzer’s opponent should have gotten a lot more votes. Republican John Faso talked taxes to death and proposed cutting seemingly every tax he could think of. He put exactly the focus on that issue that many Upstate residents seem to want.
Yet Faso lost big, never having gained any traction from his position on this issue. Of course, he never had much money to get his message out, having raised just a tenth of the $40 million that Spitzer had at his disposal.

And what about those rosy results for the Legislature? New Yorkers told us in the poll and the forums that they were deeply disappointed in state government – three in four rated the government “poor” or “only fair” on dealing with the important issues – then they went out and re-elected their own representatives.

You could chalk up these seeming inconsistencies to the often-repeated list of problems with our political process. Money plays too big a role. Gerrymandering of legislative districts gives incumbents such a leg up by packing in probable supporters that quality challengers are scared away.

But there was something additional going on – Spitzer’s promises and popularity overshadowed the legislative races. With the outcome seemingly assured, the governor’s race was never exciting, but it still consumed voters’ attention at the state level. The activism we saw in 2004 around defeating legislative incumbents never reached the same volume.

It was Spitzer’s year. We all watched to see if a skeleton would come out of his closet or if he would make a fatal mistake in the heat of the campaign (remember in 2002 when Andrew Cuomo criticized George Pataki’s leadership after Sept. 11, and it backfired?). He didn’t, and the campaign never got that hot. Even a majority of Republicans were telling pollsters they planned to vote for Spitzer.

Spitzer did address the issues on people’s minds. He vowed to reduce property taxes by expanding the STAR program (though many policy experts view that as ineffective in the long run and really just a shifting of the tax burden). He promised to overhaul Albany.
But without a threatening opponent, Spitzer did not have to get as specific on the issues as voters might have wanted. He left out details and left himself a lot of negotiating room, saying essentially on issues like workers compensation, “Trust me, I’ll fix it, but I can’t say how just yet.”

With Spitzer’s first state budget due at the end of January, it won’t be long before voters get an indication of whether they were right to pin their hopes for a better state government on Spitzer.

Erika Rosenberg is a research associate with the Center for Governmental Research. This article originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Nov. 13.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hempstead Town Welcomes Don Rumsfeld

Former Defense Secretary To Direct Planning & Development At Town Of Hempstead

Remember, you read it first on The Community Alliance blog. . .

Hempstead, New York -- Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled and soon to be former Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, won't be out of work for long, at least according to reliable sources at Hempstead Town Hall.

Rumsfeld, the chief architect of and now fall-guy for the war in Iraq, is reported to have accepted a position as head of the Town of Hempstead's Department of Planning & Economic Development, presumably courted by Joe Mondello and the Nassau County GOP to "stay the course" in Hempstead Town for the next 100 years.

Reached for comment at the Coliseum Deli, Town of Hempstead Supervisor, Kate "the Mailinator" Murray, would neither confirm nor deny the reports, saying only, "Don Rumsfeld is a great American, and the Town of Hempstead is a great place to live and raise a family. We'd be fortunate to have Don Rumsfeld working with us to make the Town an even better place to live. Besides, he's been a terrific Receiver of Taxes, hasn't he?"

Reminded that the Town Receiver of Taxes is Don "Bulldog" Clavin, the Supervisor backpeddled, "Well, ah, taxes, terrorists, no matter. Two Dons are better than one, right?"

News12 political analyst Jerry Kremer offered his take on the likely Rumsfeld incursion into Hempstead Town.

"The Town of Hempstead, where elephants go to die after resigning from or being booted out of public office, is perhaps the best place for someone like Donald Rumsfeld to ply his trade," said Kremer. "The man is clearly one of the best strategists the Republicans have, and if he can keep the GOP in Hempstead Town Hall half as long as he planned to keep American troops in Iraq, it would be a win-win for Republicans in a township where, by sheer numbers, their ranks are dwindling."

Rumsfeld himself would not comment on any possible move to Hempstead Town, his spokesman, Iraqi media wiz and former Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, saying only that "Mr. Rumsfeld fully intends to stay on as Secretary of Defense for the duration of President Bush's term. Rumors as to his resignation are all lies. There are no American troops in Iraq. And as for the Democrats taking control of Congress, 'God will roast their stomachs in hell' at the hands of the GOP."

In a Town where appointment by political favoritism and patronage has long-trumped the meritocracy that a democratic form of government requires, the broader, national issues that "thumped" the GOP in the recent elections -- and even the dysfunction of Albany -- seemed a world away.

As Anthony Santino, a Town of Hempstead Councilman and spokesman for both the Nassau County GOP and the makers of Marshmallow Fluff, was quick to point out, "Town (of Hempstead) residents enjoy paying more for garbage collection than for police protection; they support legislators in Albany whose names they recognize, even if it means higher property taxes and inequitable school funding; and they'd continue to vote Republican even if pulling that lever would send a jolt of 20,000 volts through their bodies. Hey, its a way of life. We have the suckers, er, ah, voters trained well."

Don Rumsfeld is expected to assume his new position at the Town of Hempstead -- or at least to be paid for the job, whether or not he actually shows -- come January 1.

"He'll have an office on the 4th floor at Town Hall, close to the Supervisor's," said a GOP insider, speaking on condition of anonymity outside the headquarters of Sanitary District 6 (where, for reasons still unknown, the flag has flown at half-staff since the results of Tuesday's elections filtered in). "I understand his people are already measuring the curtains."

"Yesterday Baghdad, tomorrow Baldwin," he said. "What could be better than that?"

What could be better, indeed. . .
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Next up: Vice President Dick Cheney goes hunting on the Hempstead Plains. Mistakes Nassau County Legislator Dave Mejias for a quail. A "lame duck" hunt, anyone?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Selden Seen, Too Often Taxed

Special Taxing District Saga Continues

The folks at Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD) offer feedback -- and a most watchful eye -- on the happenings and taxings at Long Island's fire districts.

Today, RESD member and West Hempstead resident Tony Brita reports on new lows in Gordon Heights and Selden seen accountability. . .

It seems like nary a week goes by without hearing another new story about the beleaguered special taxing districts who continue to demonstrate ad nauseam that costs are out of control and that they are incapable of managing their own operations. The Town of Brookhaven Board recently rejected a petition signed by 70% of the residents from Gordon Heights who pay thousands of dollars each year for fire protection services. While the rejection of the petition was based on minor technicalities such as the failure to authenticate signatures and a lack of proper binding, it should be self-evident to the Town Board that the residents have reached the saturation point with regards to receiving little to no value for their tax dollar. It would be interesting to see if the Town of Brookhaven (not exactly known for its pristine probity over the years and certainly deserving of the term “Crookhaven”) has applied the letter of the law so completely in its other dealings. The implicit point of the petition is that the will of the people has spoken and it is now the responsibility of elected officials to abide by the will of the voters.

It remains to be seen what other roadblocks the Town of Brookhaven will put in front of the intrepid residents of Gordon Heights who have been left little choice but to take matters into their own hands. Elected officials who should have been addressing the massive inequities in the special taxing districts in the first place have abandoned the very people who elected them to office. While the residents of Gordon Heights were protesting runaway taxes in their special taxing district, residents in Selden were decrying the other deadly sin of the special taxing districts – no accountability or oversight.

Apparently in Selden (as reported in Newsday), it is common practice for fire commissioners to hand in receipts for reimbursement on the back of business cards. The commissioners even admitted as much and said that they had also spent portions of their food allowance on alcohol, which is a non-reimbursable travel expense in New York State. The Chairman of the Fire District’s Board of Commissioners James Spatafora had the temerity to say "There's nothing illegal going on, there's nothing criminal.” I am not Perry Mason but if alcohol is a non-reimbursable travel expense in New York State and the good fire commissioners were being reimbursed for the drinks they had with their steak dinner (you can’t wash down a nice medium-rare porterhouse with a Coke! In Vegas?), that would appear to me to be rather illegal. Oh, to be a fire commissioner! (or any special taxing district commissioner for that matter) I could go to Vegas on the taxpayer’s dime, spend $15 on dinner, grab a business card and write “Dinner: $75”, then get reimbursed and pocket the other $60. Thank you residents of Selden. Life is so much easier when no one looks over your shoulder.

Another Selden Fire Commissioner provided (presumably with a straight face) further insight into the business travel practices of the commissioners. "Basically when I go out to eat on a business trip I eat the same way that I eat on my own," Robert Santora said, explaining money spent on alcohol. "I'd say it's pretty standard for most of the people in the whole state." TRANSLATION: “I don’t give a crap that taxpayers are paying for my meal. Why should I care about being responsible? It’s not my money. I’m doing what I want. Oh and by the way, everyone else is doing it too, so that makes me feel like it’s ok.”

The Selden Fire District’s budget is almost four million dollars yet it is run less professionally than a child’s lemonade stand on the sidewalk. Unless the special taxing districts can demonstrate that they can operate professionally and competently like the multi-million dollar organizations they are, public pressure should continue to force them to reform or disband their operations like the residents in Gordon Heights are attempting to do. In the meantime, it is a virtual lock that we will see more stories like Gordon Heights and Selden as taxpayers continue to be fleeced by the special taxing districts.

Tony Brita is a 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.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Day One, Everything Changes..."

. . .Would You Believe, "Day Two?"

On the heels of a blowout victory, Atorney General and Governor-Elect Eliot Spitzer prepares to take the helm as chief executive of the Empire State.

Spitzer's campaign theme, as echoed in his poignant TV spots, had been, "Day One, Everything Changes..."

We can certainly hope this to be true, of course, as the Spitzer team meanders literally across the street to the Capitol.

Still, we take those first steps -- and maybe the second and third -- cautiously, for, as we have come to learn, the more things change, the more they stay the same, especially in the stagnant, barely functional chambers of the New York State Legislature.

The wheels are still broken in Albany, and NY voters pretty much "stayed the course" on the homefront, opting to continue to ride along on the Legislature's flat, worn tires, leaving Spitzer and Company with a tough row to hoe as he gets ready to join those other two men in that now smokeless, but no less stale-aired room.

"Day one" may well change little, as an article appearing in The Economist shortly before the election so aptly points out, best intentions of Governor Spitzer to "change everything" aside. Then again, few things get done in a day. Rome, after all, wasn't built in a day, or so the old adage goes. And even the Almighty took seven. . .
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Mr Fixit's biggest test
Nov 2nd 2006 NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition

One place where the election is not in any doubt

The elections may be a time of high drama across America, but not in New York. Not only is Hillary Clinton a shoo-in for re-election to the Senate, but Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney-general, is leading his hapless Republican opponent, John Faso, by a gaping margin-at the last count, 71% to 22%. Mr Spitzer's challenge is not to win the governor's office; the challenge lies in what he must do once he gets there. As attorney-general he relentlessly tackled Wall Street's corporate malefactors. But that was a trifle compared with the fight that awaits him in Albany.

New York's finances are a mess. Debt per person is more than twice the national average, and the state faces budget gaps of almost $7 billion over the next two years. Mr Spitzer's first test will come quickly, as he must propose a budget by February 1st. Over the long term he must fix New York's biggest fiscal problem, its bloated Medicaid programme. It is America's costliest by far: New York spends $45 billion on Medicaid, 30% more than California, which has almost twice as many people. Mr Spitzer has ambitious plans to cut costs, from rooting out fraud to closing hospitals. But these changes will not come easily. A Wall Street billionaire was a much easier target than a nurse in Buffalo will be.

The new governor must also improve the state's failing schools. New York spends more on its students than any state except New Jersey, but has the third-lowest graduation rate in America. On top of the usual fights over reform, such as making it easier to set up independent "charter" schools, the new governor must settle a 13-year lawsuit that demands the state pump more cash into New York City's schools. Mr Spitzer promises to resolve the matter quickly, yet squabbling seems inevitable. He favours a solution that sends money to schools across the state and has suggested the city chip in as well-a proposal that has already raised the hackles of Michael Bloomberg, the city's mayor.

Then there is the dire problem of how to help upstate New York, which is poor and shrinking. Lawmakers have tried to revive the region by pouring cash into projects in so-called Empire Zones-an approach Mr Spitzer says has become "distorted by the political process". The area's economy will not improve until its business climate does. Mr Spitzer has proposed a mild property-tax cut and promised reforms to lower workers'-compensation costs, reduce electricity costs (now 63% above the national average) and streamline regulations.

Unfortunately, any reform will face the perennial log-jam in Albany. New York has become an example of state politics at its worst. In a damning new book, "Three Men in a Room", a former state senator, Seymour Lachman, describes how power is entrenched in the hands of the governor, the Senate majority leader (usually a Republican) and the Assembly speaker (usually a Democrat). These men often give their underlings just a few hours to review bills the size of phonebooks; lawmakers then vote as they are told, for fear of being denied aid for their districts.
The capital is a playground for special interests, with more lobbyists per legislator (18 to one) than any other state. Public authorities, appointed bodies that pay for projects by issuing state bonds, are to blame for most of New York's debt. No one even knows how many authorities exist, though there are said to be "at least 733" of them. Thanks to gerrymandering, an inept legislator, once he has been elected, is usually there for life.

Fixing this requires a bold leader. Mr Spitzer has audacity to spare. But as attorney-general he could act almost unilaterally. As governor he will have to compromise. The Spitzer campaign's favoured slogan is "Day one, everything changes". That is impossible. But he may nudge New York in the right direction.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Not Your Father's Republican Party

"Smaller Government" and "Fiscal Conservatism" Supplanted by "Borrow & Spend" and Countless Public Authorities

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and STAR --and "styro" checks --
Of money flows -- and kings (3) --
And why your taxes are so boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

In generations past, it was the GOP that boasted cutting the size of government, restraint with the taxpayers' money, and a balancing of budgets. In fact, Republicans were always quick to point the finger, calling Democrats the party of "tax and spend."

Well, look who's spending now, and accumulating a debt that our grandchildren's grandchildren will be paying off. [$8.5 trillion on the federal level, and more than $48 billion right here in New York.]

No, its not "tax and spend" (where at least the money to spend is at hand and accounted for), its a more reckless, foolhardy pattern of "borrow and spend." The kind of smoke and mirrors approach of "borrow today and pay through the gills -- with interest -- tomorrow!"

As for smaller, more effective government, well, as they say in Brooklyn, "fuggetaboutit!" We have more governement today, and certainly more waste, than ever before.

And you don't have to look so far as to Washington for this fiscal immorality. Why, our pals in Albany are doing just fine as they spend, spend, spend what the taxpayers of New York don't have, have, have.

When spending outpaces income by billions of dollars every year, and the government has to borrow just to keep up appearances, you know you're in trouble.

And don't talk about a smaller, more efficient government, certainly not in New York. Heck, even the Albany elite aren't quite sure of the exact number of public authorities out there (730, and counting, as of this morning), picking the pockets of taxpayers by "bonding" the future. The Legislature creates these self-governing, money-grubbing beasts, and simply turns 'em loose -- on us!

Just the other day, this blogger received one of those glossy, pre-election mailings, courtesy of the New York Republican Committee. You know, the kind of junk mail that landfills are made of.

It asked us to "join the tax revolt" by voting Rebublican.

This blogger would have laughed, or at least scoffed at the irony, but realizing that there are folks out there who actually buy into this nonsense...

Some tax revolt -- and led by the GOP, no less. Kinda like General Custer leading the troops into battle in Iraq. [Oh wait. He is...]

Do we have to remind voters that, for the past 12 years, New York has had a Republican Governor and a Republican-dominated State Senate? That 2 of those 3 men in "the room" are card-carrying members of the Republican Party?

Has anyone looked at their property tax bills lately? Now that's what we call, "revolting!"

Even locally, right here in Nassau County, where Dems now control the roost. Sure, County taxes have gone up, as we all know, but not because of "tax and spend" Democrats. Does anyone remember the poster boy for "borrow and spend?" Tom Gulotta, the former GOP County Exec, who left Nassau County in financial ruin!

And the reassessment, always blamed on the Democrats. What short memories the electorate must have. The reassessment, ordered by the courts, came into play during a Republican administration (both at the County and State levels). They only complained about it after voters gave 'em the boot!

"Pay as you go" -- as in "spend what you have." We all know that this is the way efficient government should operate. The Republicans used to shout "pay as you go" from the bully-pulpit. No more.

Of course, that was then, not now. That was before some of us elected a president and a Congress that spends like there is no tomorrow (with a foreign policy that just may make this practice a self-fulfilling prophecy). That was before we elected a Governor and a Legislature that spends our money, often secretly, behind our backs, on pet projects that benefit the few, and political boondoggles that burden the many.

No, this is not your father's Republican party!
- - -

Monday, November 06, 2006

Three Men In A Room

A Chance to Make a Difference or More of the Same

The New York Times ran an editorial this weekend entitled, When In Doubt on Tuesday.

In essence, the paper's editorial board suggested that, if you are unsure for whom to cast your vote with respect to members of the New York State Legislature, you should elect Democrats to the State Senate and Republicans to the Assembly, in essence reversing the flow of backwater in these respective chambers, the Senate long-controlled by the GOP, and the Assembly forever dominated by the Dems.

Frankly, we can't say we agree with the prevailing view at The Times, nor do we endorse the wholesale casting of ballots for one party or another either to maintain the status quo or just to change the oil on a car whose crankshaft perpetually leaks and is held together only by rust.

Though voters may have "doubts" in pulling the lever in certain races (yes, we're still "pulling the levers" here in New York, evidence again that our State Legislature is, as a whole, asleep behind the wheel and driven by forces that do not typically or readily benefit either taxpayer or voter), to vote party over person, patron over pragmatism, is for the electorate to cop out in having to do its homework on who would best serve the true interests of their constituencies.

If you don't know what the candidates stand for, and, in the case of incumbents, what they have or have not done for your community, shame on you. You deserve what we've had in Albany, from the general dysfunction to the disgraceful rules by which they conduct business (rules such as those that permit legislators to vote on measures even when they're not in their seats -- or in the building, for that matter), and you'll deserve what we'll get -- more of the same.

More than this, turning the Assembly over to the Republicans and the State Senate over to the Democrats, will do absolutely nothing to change a fundamental flaw in the legislative process -- that everything that happens in Albany is determined not by the will of the legislative bodies as a whole (or even in part), but rather, by those three men in a room (two of whom most New Yorkers never even have the opportunity to vote for -- or against).

It comes as no surprise, certainly not to the astute readers of this blog, that nothing happens in Albany (we should end the thought right there) without the blessing of those three men -- the Governor, the Majority Leader of the Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly.

Switch around their parties and change the leadership, if you will, and, at the end of the legislative session, you will find that the decisions that impact upon your life are still being made by three men in a room. Only the parties will have changed.

In reality, its not the men -- we believe that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver both represent their consituents with zeal and diligence (as for Governor George Pataki, well, that's another story altogether), but, face it, unless you live in the Majority Leader's Senate district or the Speaker's Assembly district, these men were not elected to represent you.

The thought of two men -- one elected from a Senate district in Rensselaer County representing some 306,000 residents, the other from an Assembly District covering lower Manhattan representing approximately 126,000 New yorkers -- making decisions for more than 19 million New Yorkers, borders on the absurd. In fact, it crosses that border, effectively assuring that more than 18.5 million citizens of the Empire State have little or no representation in Albany, their own district's legislators having long ago permitted the three men in a room to usurp the powers granted to them not only by the State Constitution, but by our votes.

In essence, when you come right down to it, we really don't have representative government in Albany. At best, it is government by proxy, where legislators on both sides of the aisle regularly cede their authority -- not to mention committee functions and voting clout -- to their all-powerful leaders. 150 Assembly members. 62 State Senators. That's 212 State Legislators in all, if this blogger's 4th grade math scores are accurate. And everything that happens -- from education to taxes -- is decided by three men in a room. [And you thought we needed to bring democracy to other regions of the world. Just bringing it to the Capital Region of New York would be refreshing!]

Before we could hoist the "Mission Accomplished" banner over the State Capitol, heralding the day that Albany has been "fixed," more than a changing of the guard -- from Republican to Democrat and Democrat to Republican -- is required. It is fundamental change, from the rules our legislators play by to the number of public authorities allowed to "bond" outside legislative purview -- that must be our legislators' marching orders.

Former State Senator Seymour Lachman, who didn't coin the phrase Three Men In A Room, but wrote a book by the same name, set forth, as a basic premise, certain fundamental changes which must be adopted by our State Legislature if we have a shot at returning representative government to Albany -- and with it, the prospect of tackling New York's tough problems, historically neglected, or, at best, sugar-coated, by our State Legislature.

The reforms include the following:

• Term limits for all Assembly members and senators.

• Eliminate special budget allocations worked out among house leaders and the governor for their special projects.

• Require total transparency of any and all member items, which are intended to serve community needs, not the electoral agenda of the house leaders.

• Set up a nonpartisan redistricting board, as the redistricting process is now used by Senate and Assembly leaders to prevent truly competitive elections and protect their house majorities.

• Establish a permanent, nonpartisan ethics commission to police the Legislature, executive branch and state agencies.

• Limit the state to a maximum of a dozen public authorities at any one time, keeping the authorities such as those responsible for transit and highways and scrapping the rest, incorprotating their functions into the regular state budget. At the same time, establish a nonpartisan commission with ample auditing staff to oversee the public authorities that remain and report on their activities and expenditures to the Legislature and the public.

• Require seniority-based appointments of committee chairs, subject to party vote, thus providing committees some autonomy from the house leaders to devise and debate legisaltion.

• Equalize resources for staffs and services for every legislator, regardless whether he or she is in the dominant or minority party of his or her house. This will prevent the second-class treatment of minority-party members in both houses and the denial of one-person, one-vote principles for their constituents.

• Require every bill voted out of legislative committee to be voted on by the entire house, not selectively weeded out or junked by the house leader.

• Establish a mechanism to resolve legislative difference in compatible bills passed in the Senate and the Assembly.

• Establish a nonpartisan, independent budget office to monitor state budget and state finances, including debt accumulation and taxation.

As for how you should cast your vote on Tuesday, November 7th, our recommendation would be two-fold: Vote for those who you believe would best serve the interests of your community, and, vote for those who are willing to at least give change in Albany a chance, signing on, in principle, if not more, to the Lachman reforms.

However you decide on Tuesday, do vote. Every vote, including yours, does, indeed, make a difference.

And that's the key word here, "difference!" Everything else is just "more of the same," a reality we can no longer afford here in New York, and a legislative system we should no longer tolerate.