Monday, December 18, 2006

County Comptroller Says Special Districts Can Save $35 Million. . .

. . .Then Again, Why Should They? Aparently, We Really Do Enjoy Paying More!


Joined by Town Supervisors Jon Kaiman (North Hempstead) and John Venditto (Oyster Bay) the Nassau County Comptroller says Special Districts can save up to $35 Million Annually. [Hmm. Where was Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, we wonder? Is she still the Town Supervisor, or does she only play one on TV? Oh, Kate. That "we have no control over the special districts" is getting very, very old...]

From Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman:

Many of Nassau County’s hundreds of special tax districts can – and should – reduce their expenses, potentially saving taxpayers between $23.8 and $35.7 million per year, according to a report issued today by County Comptroller Howard S. Weitzman.

Comptroller Weitzman described the findings of the report, Cost-Saving Ideas for Special Districts in Nassau County,” at a news conference today, joined by Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman and Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, who endorsed the cost-saving measures and promised to work with special districts in their towns to help achieve them.

“It’s not impossible to control property taxes, or even reduce them in some cases,” Comptroller Weitzman said. “But first you have to cut the cost of government. This report shows that it can be done.

“I’m especially glad to note some progress on one of the most important issues: the need for oversight of commissioner-run special districts. The Towns of North Hempstead and Oyster Bay have begun to actively review the proposed budgets of these districts, just as they do for districts and departments under direct town management. New York State’s Town Law clearly authorizes such a review, and special district taxpayers clearly benefit when the Towns review their proposed budgets.”

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman said, “The Town recently created an office of inter-municipal coordination where we work with districts and villages for our mutual benefit. Our ability to evaluate and assist in the budgeting process is growing, with the goal being greater confidence that our money is being spent wisely and efficiently. In addition, we will continue our effort to work with districts in ways that save money while still providing a high level of service to our mutual constituents.”

Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto said, “The Town of Oyster Bay has long led the way in facilitating inter-municipal cooperation between various levels of government to help them save taxpayer dollars. In addition to assisting county government and local school districts, we have worked with special districts on their bond issues so they get the benefit of the Town’s excellent credit rating, which translates to lower interest costs for their taxpayers. Our finance staff has also been meeting with representatives of the special districts to conduct a review of their budgets, and to suggest ways to cut costs and keep expenditures down. We will continue to offer our resources to the special districts in any way we can.”

There are more than 200 special town tax districts in Nassau that collect $473 million every year in local property taxes, according to Comptroller Weitzman. “The districts provide essential services, such as water, fire protection, and sanitation,” he said. “Some of them are efficiently run. But in many other cases, particularly in the 101 special districts run by elected commissioners, there are ample opportunities for savings. That’s what this report is about.

“In order to determine how much money potentially could be saved, we applied these cost-saving ideas to the budgets of some of the sanitary districts we audited in 2005,” he continued. “We discovered that, if adopted, the measures would save between 10 and 15 percent of current district operating costs. Such a reduction in taxes imposed by commissioner-run special districts, if achieved across the board, would have saved Nassau County residents between $23.8 million and $35.7 million in 2006 alone.”

The report is the first in a series of concrete measures to follow up on last June’s Conference on Nassau County Special Districts, organized by Comptroller Weitzman, which drew 400 district commissioners, economists, public policy experts and taxpayers to Hofstra University to consider ways of making such districts more efficient and accountable.

Following the conference, Comptroller Weitzman held a series of meetings last summer with commissioners from town water, fire and sanitary districts to share information and ideas about possible cost savings. A number of the ideas discussed are contained in the new report. In addition to increased scrutiny of district budgets by town government, the report outlines a variety of other measures, achievable in the near-term, for reducing expenditures. One of the most promising areas for reducing expenses is insurance, which in some districts accounts for up to 25 percent of the budgeted expenditures.

“It is not necessary for the districts to spend taxpayer money on brokers’ fees and insurance company overhead and profits,” Comptroller Weitzman said. “Self-insurance, as practiced by the county and all three towns, can be a powerful tool for saving money – between 40 and 50 percent of the cost, according to one national expert with whom we consulted.”

Instead of purchasing liability and workers’ compensation policies from brokers, districts have other options. They can:
· join with other municipalities to self-insure risk whenever reasonable;
· obtain insurance from government providers, such as the New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal (NYMIR), instead of private companies;
· participate in NYSHIP to get reduced rates on employee health insurance; and
· use larger deductibles when it makes economic sense.
The report finds many other areas in which special districts can cut costs, including:
· Purchasing and Hiring – Districts can:
o enter into municipal cooperation agreements to obtain goods and services at reduced prices;
o purchase equipment and services off a New York State contract or a county contract, without going through a separate bid process;
o share the cost of retaining professional service firms like attorneys and engineers, rather than the common – and wasteful – practice of putting consultants on the payroll and paying for their health insurance and pensions, often for part-time work of less than 20 hours per week; and
o share the cost of administrative staff.
· Recouping EMS Costs – Fire districts are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain volunteer ambulance services. Some of this burden could be relieved if the districts begin charging for their ambulance services, as does the county; or if they choose to allow the county to provide primary ambulance service in their district. The latter would require significant enhancements to the county’s current EMS capabilities.
· Use County Water Testing – Water testing, as regulated by local, state and federal law, is a major expense for water districts. Nassau County has a facility that can test water and which meets the standards set by the various oversight agencies. The report recommends that the county Health Department offer the use of its lab to the Nassau County water districts.

In 2005, Comptroller Weitzman’s office audited town sanitary districts in Nassau County. In four of five districts examined, auditors found serious financial mismanagement, a lack of oversight, few, if any, written policies and procedures, overspending, faulty contracting, and questionable employment and benefit practices. A follow-up white paper discussed problems of waste, fraud and abuse in special districts generally.

The cost-saving report, as well as the previous audits and the white paper, can be found at the Comptroller Website,
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As for Kate Murray, she's still waiting for feedback form her constituents (and maybe from a few people beyond the borders of Levittown) on the efficacy and efficiency of the special districts. Of course, when the Peanut Gallery sees more of you on television than they do live and in person, there's a certain disconnect between what Kate perceives and the reality of those special taxing jurisdictions.

Watch for fresh new episodes of Where's Kate? on your boob tube -- same Town of Hempstead time, same Town of Hempstead channel -- coming after January 1!

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