Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Long Island's Walkable Communities

Yes, There Are "Walkable Communities" On Long Island ~ But They're Few And Far Between

In a recent blog, Dan Burden wrote about making our villages and hamlets more pedestrian friendly -- the addition of the "walkable community" to the mix of smart growth and the new suburbanization.

As Dan points out in his selection of America's "walkable" communities, Long Island has claim to a couple of communities that fit the criteria for this enviable designation, most notably, the villages of Huntington and Port Jefferson.

Many of us are familiar with Huntington's "Main Street" (appropriately called "Main Street"), with its quaint boutiques and fine restaurants. Port Jeff, of course, for those of us who occasionally travel by ferry to Connecticut, is an artsy, folksy town by the bay, with a look and a feel the says "community."

Granted, Long Island, which grew up by the automobile, has only a few more walkable communities than it has palm trees -- all situated, more or less, on the island's north shore. Still, the walkable community, while not in walking distance for most of us, does exist, and efforts are underway to encourage the development of walkable communities across Long Island.

In the Town of North Hempstead, on the Port Washington peninsula, a visioning process konwn as Shared Vision, begun in January of 2005, is continuing to give shape to sustainable communities with a renewed sense of place. The Westbury Avenue Revitalization Project in Carle Place is about to jump off the drawing board and onto the pavement.

In New Cassel, the vision is being transformed into reality, the concepts of the walkable community now being applied to what was once seen as an unworkable community.

In pockets around our island, long-overlooked brownfields are being looked at anew -- patches of green that wend their way through viable retail and residential centers, breathing new life into downtowns thought to have taken their last gasps.

True, the progress is slow. On Long Island's oft forgotten south shore, it has been virtually non-existent. Still, with the coming of Nassau's Empire Zone, and the "visioning" process gaining a foothold -- with seed money from the County and the Town of Hempstead to promote smart growth -- more than just talk of walkable communities may well be in the offing for places such as Elmont, Roosevelt, Baldwin and Inwood.

This, of course, bodes well for all of us on Long Island. For as certain as blight leads to more blight, the fire next door consuming our own homes, the enhancement of core communities in Nassau County, and in Hempstead Town, in particular, is certain to benefit every hamlet, village and unincorporated area seeking it's own sense of place, walking the walk toward our island's walkable communities.
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*Walkable Communities Have:

1. Intact town centers. This center includes a quiet, pleasant main street with a hearty, healthy set of stores. These stores are open for business a minimum of 8 hours a day. The stores include things like barbers/beauticians, hardware, druggist, small grocery/deli, sets of good restaurants, clothing, variety store, ice cream shop, stores that attract children, many youth and senior services, places to conduct civic and personal business, library, all within a 1/4 mile walk (5 minutes) of the absolute center. If this is a county seat, the county buildings are downtown. If this is an incorporated town the town hall is in the town center. The library is open for business at least 10 hours a day 6-7 days a week. There is still a post office downtown.

2. Residential densities, mixed income, mixed use. Near the town center, and in a large town at appropriate transit locations there will be true neighborhoods. Higher densities are toward the town center and in appropriate concentrations further out. Housing includes mixed income and mixed use. A truly walkable community does not force lots of people to drive to where they work. Aspen, for example, is a great place to shop and play...but fails to provide housing for anyone who works there. Granny flats, design studios and other affordable housing are part of the mix in even the wealthiest neighborhoods.

3. Public Space. There are many places for people to assemble, play and associate with others within their neighborhood. The best neighborhoods have welcoming public space within 1/8th mile (700 feet) of all homes. These spaces are easily accessed by all people.

4. Universal Design. The community has a healthy respect for people of all abilities, and has appropriate ramps, medians, refuges, crossings of driveways, sidewalks on all streets where needed, benches, shade and other basic amenities to make walking feasible and enjoyable for everyone.

5. Key Streets Are Speed Controlled. Traffic moves on main street and in neighborhoods at safe, pleasant, courteous speeds. Most streets are designed to keep speeds low. Many of these streets are tree lined, have on-street parking and use other methods that are affordable means to keep traffic speeds under control. There is an absence of one-way couplets designed to flush downtown of its traffic in a rush or flight to the suburbs. In most parts of the nation the streets are also green, or have other pleasant landscaping schemes in dry climates.

6. Streets, Trails are Well Linked. The town has good block form, often in a grid or other highly connected pattern. Although hilly terrain calls for slightly different patterns, the linkages are still frequent. Some of the newer neighborhoods that were built to cul-de-sac or other fractured patterns are now being repaired for walking by putting in trail connectors in many places. These links are well designed so that there are many eyes on these places. Code for new streets no longer permits long streets that are disconnected.

7. Design is Properly Scaled to 1/8th, 1/4 and 1/2 mile radius segments. From most homes it is possible to get to most services in ¼ mile (actual walked distance). Neighborhood elementary schools are within a ¼ mile walking radius of most homes, while high schools are accessible to most children (1 mile radius). Most important features (parks) are within 1/8th mile, and a good, well designed place to wait for a high frequency (10-20 minutes) bus is within ¼ to ½ mile. Note that most of these details can be seen on a good local planning map, and even many can be downloaded from the web.

8. Town is Designed for People. Look for clues that decisions are being made for people first, cars second. Does the town have a lot of open parking lots downtown? Are a lot of streets plagued with multiple commercial driveways, limited on-street parking, fast turning radii on corners. Towns designed for people have many investments being made in plazas, parks, walkways ... rarely are they investing in decongesting intersections on the far reaches of town. Towns designed for people are tearing down old, non-historic dwellings, shopping plazas and such and converting them to compact, mixed use, mixed income properties. Ask to review the past year of building permits by category. Much is told about what percentage of construction that is infill and independent small builder stock versus big builder single price range housing or retail stock.

9. Town is Thinking Small. The most walkable towns are boldly stepping forward requiring maximum parking allowed, versus minimum required. Groceries and other important stores are not permitted to build above a reasonable square footage, must place the foot print of the structure to the street, etc. Palo Alto, for instance, caps their groceries at 20,000 square feet. This assures that groceries, drug stores and other important items are competitive at a size that is neighborhood friendly. Neighborhood schools are community centers. Older buildings are rebuilt in place, or converted to modern needs. Most parking is on-street.

10. In Walkable Communities There Are Many People Walking. This sounds like a silly statement at first ... but think again. Often there are places that look walkable, but no one walks. Why? There is always a reason. Is it crime? Is it that there is no place to walk to, even though the streets and walkways are pleasant? Are the downtown stores not open convenient hours? You should be able to see a great diversity of those walking and bicycling. Some will be very young, some very old. People with disabilities will be common. Another clue, where people walk in great abundance virtually all motorists are courteous to pedestrians. It is true.

11. The Town and Neighborhoods have a Vision. Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas are just three examples where neighborhood master plans have been developed. Honolulu sets aside about $1M per year of funds to be spent by each neighborhood. Visionary, master plans provide direction, build ownership of citizens, engage diverse people, and create opportunities for implementation, to get past sticky issues, and deal with the most basic, fundamental, necessary decisions and commitment. There are budgets set aside for neighborhoods, for sidewalks, trails, links, parks. The community no longer talks about where they will get the money, but how they will change their priorities.

12. Decision Makers Are Visionary, Communicative, and Forward Thinking. The town has a strong majority of leaders who "get it". Leaders know that they are not to do all the work ... but to listen and respond to the most engaged, involved, broad minded citizens. They rarely are swayed by the anti-group, they seek the opinions and involvement big brush citizens and retailers. They are purposefully changing and building policies, practices, codes and decisions to make their towns pleasant places for people ... reinvesting in the town center, disinfesting in sprawl. These people know the difference between a green field, brown field and grey field. They know what Active Living by Design is all about. The regional government understands and supports the building of a town center, and is not attempting to take funds from the people at the center to induce or support sprawl. Often there is a charismatic leader on the town board, chamber of commerce, planning board, there is an architectural review team, a historic preservation effort, and overall good public process. Check out the web site of the town ... if they focus on their golf courses, tax breaks, great medical services, scenic majestic mountains, or proximity to the sea ... fail to emphasize their neighborhood schools, world class library, lively downtown, focus on citizen participation ... they are lost, bewitched and bewildered in their own lust and lure of Walt Disney's Pleasure Island.

*From, How Can I Find and Help Build a Walkable Community?, by Dan Burden, Executive Director of Walkable Communities, Inc.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Walkable Communities

How Can I Find and Help Build a Walkable Community?

By Dan Burden

This is one of the most important and necessary questions anyone should ask before settling down in a permanent location. Many corporate leaders looking to expand or move locations are now looking for towns offering appropriate start up breaks, but also where they and their middle managers want to live many years, raise a family and retire. Our website, has a 12-step program for defining and achieving or strengthening community walkability.

But finding a walkable town is a different task. So, I have built a list of the 12 most important things to rate when searching for a Walkable Community. Note that there are many walkable communities in America that are declining, due to poor politics, staffing or a lost vision. And there are some communities on the cusp of becoming walkable that have strong leadership and direction. Given a choice, I would move to the community that is up and coming.

You can, of course, move into a new Walkable Community, such as Seaside, Celebration, Abacoa, Florida; Kentlands, Maryland, The Crossings, Mountain View, California; Fairview Village, Orenco Station, Oregon; Northwest Landing, Washington; and now hundreds of others. I know these places well. I return to them often, photographing, walking and measuring their essences. The paint, the grass, everything is fresh and new there. Some of these new urban villages are rather complete, and fit well into the fabric of the greater town or region they share.

But if you don’t want to wait for these places to become organic, go for the real towns of America … they are abundant, old, tried and proven, and they need many defenders of their greatness. This article is mostly on how to find existing Walkable Communities. They are way too numerous to list more than a fraction.

This article is also a little bit on how to protect these delicate real places of the heart. As I write this, I am sitting in East Lansing, one of my favorite Walkable Communities. I am eager to go out for a walk. But I am also 100 miles from Holland, Michigan. I am torn - I'd like to go there, right now, take in the color of the tulips, walk its streets and listen to the outward pride and laughter of its people.

You can either be a passenger on the train to change, or get up in the engine helping stoke the fire, taking in the gusty winds of change feeling the sting and smell of hot cinders burning the hair off the nape of your neck. These up and coming communities may be more affordable, and are likely to be fun places to place your energies. But before you move, truly check out the politics of change.

Good towns come in all regions of the country. The best are often small places like Keene, New Hampshire; Winter Park, Florida; Flagstaff, Arizona; Crested Butte, Colorado or Los Gatos, California … or they include big cities like Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; or San Diego, California that have many small, well designed compact, intact neighborhoods, each with a village center and a character and personality of its own.

In some of these villages, strong enclaves of Hispanic, Jewish, Polish, German, Asian, Afro-American or gay cultures are found, taking pride building or maintaining their communities. Other villages are fully mixed, rich in diversity of people, age, abilities and wealth. You can live in a town that is sprawling itself to death, and still lead a healthy life in several great neighborhoods. Note that top rated towns in this listing either already have or are now developing many villages in their city. Click HERE to read more about Finding The Great Walkable Community.
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Dan Burden is a nationally recognized authority on bicycle and pedestrian facilities and programs, street corridor and intersection design, traffic flow and calming, and other design and planning elements that affect roadway environments. He has had 25 years of experience in developing, promoting and evaluating alternative transportation facilities, traffic calming practices and sustainable community design. He served for 16 years as Florida DOT’s State Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, and he presently works as Executive Director of Walkable Communities, Inc., a non-profit corporation helping North America develop walkable communities.

Click HERE to check out the image library at pedbikeimages.org. See what walkable communities look like, and begin to think of ways your hometown can become more walkable, and thus, more livable.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The High Cost Of Winning

Does Enabling The Few Disable The Many?

George Rand, in his latest Rand-om Thoughts column, questions the value to underachieving school districts, and to the general population of students, as a whole, in "funding" Intel competitors.

The Intel Science Talent Search announced its selection of finalists month - eight out of the 40 finalists nationwide are from Long Island.

Does this mean all our students are performing well? Not quite! The students who were as finalists are the brightest and most talented in their schools. These are the ones who would have successful college careers without winning any science contests.

Often, the parents of Intel winners are immigrant scientists, engineers or doctors. It was the same this year: One of Long Island's finalists came from Russia as a youngster and both her parents are professionals at Stony Brook University.

As a former research engineering manager and university science instructor, I am appalled whenever I see stories about high school students trying to do research instead of concentrating on their fundamental education. Long Island school officials spend millions of our tax dollars to have their students win prizes in science contests.

That money would be better channeled to underachieving students.

Uniondale High School, which had an Intel finalists this year, is one of several school districts on Long Island where half the students fail to meet the state's eighth-grade English standards. Nearly 20 percent of high schools students on Long Island who were to earn diplomas in 2005 did not graduate on time.

It is unfair to the vast majority of students to set aside $135,000-a-year teachers to put the school's name in the headlines while too few students know which travels faster, light or sound.

Science teachers who are in short supply - most teachers shy away from "hard" subjects like physics and math - should not be allowed to concentrate on a few select students to the detriment of the vast majority. Most importantly, it is an injustice to allow students to attempt science research before they master the technology that only a university education can provide.

-George Rand
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Would the money invested in Intel competitors be better spent elsewhere within the school system, or are we banking on everyone's future by investing in the best and the brightest?

This reminds us of the debate engaged in during the 60s ~ Do we spend billions to send man to the moon when millions go hungry here on earth? Maybe, just maybe, the returns on that investment -- like feeding the hungry through bio-engineering techniques that grew out of the space program -- come back to us 100-fold.

Invest in the success of a single child, and you invest in the success of every child. Lift up but one soul to the light, and you enoble us all!

What's your opinion? At The Community Alliance, we'd like to know. Add your comments to this blog, and e-mail us at info@thecommunityalliance.org.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Parks Is Parks, Redux

A Report From A Nassau County Parks Watchdog Group

Bruce Piel, Chairman of Park Advocacy & Recreation Council of Nassau (PARCnassau), chimes in with his observations of the state of Nassau's public parks.

So what has been happening with Nassau County parks? Its a new year but the same old attitudes and problems. We have an absentee County Executive and a dysfunctional legislature to address many issues including parks. Lotsa Luck!

The administration upset over the cost of the cosmetic improvement made in parks just prior to the election is now tightening the purse strings which means little or no improvements to park facilities. The exception will be the misappropriation of monies from the Environmental Bond Bill voted in last year. Instead of preserving new undeveloped lands in Nassau, they will use it for day to day operations, despite the original intent of the Bond.

In addition, there is a hiring freeze again, put in place in all categories except Deputy Commissioners! Parks has hired a Deputy Commissioner for Finance and one for Museums, plus they are considering hiring one for Golf. In addition, they will be announcing a new Commissioner, finally replacing Doreen Banks who has been exiled in the Muttontown Preserve for a few years now. None of the new hires has suburban park experience, so we must suffer through their On-The-Job training instead of bringing aboard qualified people in the first place.

As always PARCnassau will keep you up to date on what is and is not happening in our county parks. Please let us know if your e-mail address changes and your reactions to park events.

Bruce Piel
Park Advocacy & Recreation Council of Nassau (PARCnassau)
246 Twin Lane East
Wantagh, NY 11793-1963
(516) 783-8378
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So, whatever became of the $50 million earmarked for Nassau's parks under the much touted Environmental Bond Act (even the website for the Nassau County EBA Program has disappeared from view), and what do we have to show for the $18 Million allocated under the “Nassau County Parks Are Making a Come Back” Campaign?

We are left to wonder, is there action beyond the press release, any hope of forward motion after the cameras have been turned off and the reporters have filed their stories?

Nassau County's In The Black, But. . .

$78.3 Million Dollar Surplus for 2005 ~ Balanced Budget In 2006 ~ What Happens In 2007?

Nassau County achieved a budget surplus in 2005 of $78.3 million, its fourth annual surplus under the Suozzi administration, Comptroller Howard Weitzman announced today in his annual end-of-the-year review of the county’s finances.

“The good news is that we are generating consistent budget surpluses, year after year, without having to resort to annual tax increases,” Comptroller Weitzman said. “There are concerns on the horizon, such as the disappointing growth in sales tax revenues, the county’s single largest source of revenue. But thanks to conservative budgeting and the practice of using annual surpluses to establish reserves for future budget relief, the county has been able to absorb normal expense growth since 2003 without raising property taxes, in effect returning the money to taxpayers.”

The Suozzi administration plans to use the entire surplus to fund reserves to help balance future budgets. Subject to approval by the Legislature, the county will earmark $50 million of the surplus to set aside funds for property tax refunds in 2006. Under Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) rules, the county is no longer permitted to issue debt to pay for property tax refunds, except for $15 million in 2006 and $10 million in 2007. Another $25.3 million will be added to reserves for pension contributions, and $3 million will be reserved for payment of judgments and settlements.

“Nassau County has continued in 2005 to exercise smart management, control labor costs, budget realistically and avoid fiscal gimmicks,” Comptroller Weitzman said. “That’s why we have enjoyed 11 upgrades in our bond rating since 2002. Even so, it is only going to get tougher to balance our budgets with each new year, as we predict little or no revenue growth, inevitable cost increases, and the exhaustion of existing reserve funds.

“One indication of this increased difficulty is that, whereas in 2003 and 2004 the county would have achieved small surpluses even without the use of “one-shots” (i.e., non-recurring sources of revenue or expense reduction) in 2005 our surplus could not have been achieved without them,” he noted. The 2005 structural gap – i.e., before the application of one-time revenues – was approximately $37 million. “But all one-shot revenues are not created equal,” he observed. “The use of non-recurring revenues in 2005 to maintain taxes and generate a surplus was prudent and not based on fiscal gimmicks. For example, during 2005 the county used about $34 million of one-time revenues from the Hevesi pension relief law approved by the state in 2004. While some other municipalities spent that windfall in 2004, in Nassau we set it aside in a reserve fund for the purpose it was intended – to pay for employee retirement expenses and thereby help to forestall future tax increases.”

In total, there were $115.3 million of one-shots in 2005, including $23 million in proceeds from tobacco securitization, $7.5 million from funds previously reserved to cover the cost of police severance, and $12.3 million of aid from NIFA.

Looking forward, Comptroller Weitzman indicated that, although the county adopted a fiscally sound, balanced budget for 2006, in order to do so it had to close a structural gap of $110 million. “Given the slowing pace of sales tax revenue and the growing structural gap,” he said, “my greater concern is for 2007 and beyond. The administration, however, has a proven track record of successfully responding to fiscal challenges as they arise.”

In 2005, gross sales tax totaled $953.8 million, $10.9 million under budget, and receipts grew only 1½ percent over the prior year. Recognizing the potential negative future impact of this slower than historic growth, County Executive Suozzi took action last week to address a projected shortfall in 2006 sales tax revenues, including imposing a freeze on most new hiring and purchasing.

Among other financial issues clouding the horizon are the fiscal condition of the Nassau Health Care Corporation (NHCC) and the county’s liability for future health insurance costs for its retirees. In December, Comptroller Weitzman expressed renewed concern over NHCC’s financial condition and called for immediate action on the part of management to institute cost-cutting measures called for in the hospital corporation’s rescue plan. NHCC, whose $300 million-plus debt is guaranteed by Nassau, is on the verge of running out of cash.

In addition, under recently adopted accounting rules affecting all municipalities, within two years the county must begin to report the projected liability for all future health insurance costs for its employees and retirees. “This number will be in the billions of dollars,” Comptroller Weitzman said, “and will bring into sharp focus the financial impact of this costly unfunded future benefit for employees.”

Among other highlights of the 2005 results:
-Investment income was $8.8 million over budget due to a conservative budget estimate and larger than expected increases in interest rates;
-Police Department overtime totaled $52 million, $16.1 million over budget, while overtime at the Correctional Center totaled $22.7 million, $1.1 million over budget. “I continue to be concerned about the management of police overtime and hope that the planned study of police manpower needs to be completed this year will help in the management of this situation,” Comptroller Weitzman said. By contrast, the numbers for the jail indicate a welcome recent decrease in overtime;
-Without police and corrections overtime, salaries and fringe benefits were $30 million under budget, primarily the result of unfilled employee positions, health insurance savings, and savings from negotiated union contracts;
-Non-Medicaid-related state aid was $9.5 million over budget;
-The county realized $8.2 million in 2005 savings from the recently enacted Medicaid cap legislation;
-The county received $114.5 million of federal aid, $8.9 million under the $123.4 million budget.

“The string of surpluses since 2002 provides further proof, if any more is needed, that Nassau's fiscal recovery is real and ongoing," Comptroller Weitzman said. "Nevertheless, we will have to remain vigilant in the future as we continue to deal with the financial impact of stagnant revenues."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Specical Election In 17th Assembly District

McKevitt and Zahid Vie for 17th Assembly Seat


The following candidate profiles are reprinted from the Mineola American:

Thomas McKevitt

By Margaret Whitely

Thomas McKevitt, of East Meadow, has been tapped by the Republican Party to run for the 17th Assembly District seat vacated by Nassau County Clerk Maureen O'Connell.

The special election for this seat will be held on Feb. 28 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Voting will be held at regular polling places throughout the 17th Assembly District.

McKevitt, for the last nine years, has served as the deputy town attorney for the Town of Hempstead. He is a lifelong resident of East Meadow. He attended both grade and high school there and it is where his parents still live. He is a graduate of Hofstra University and of Hofstra Law School.

He believes so strongly in the East Meadow community that after he and his wife Samantha were married, four years ago, they bought a house not far from his folks.

If elected, McKevitt said he will concentrate his efforts on making sure that Nassau County receives its fair share of state funding for schools and will make sure that aid goes directly to the classroom. In addition he would look into expanding the STAR tax relief and preserving the EPIC prescription program. He said he wants to protect the suburban character of the area and would fight against any plan that would hurt the quality of life of residents in the district.

McKevitt said, "I think the best part of the campaign is going from door-to-door to meet the residents. People are only too happy to meet with you. I have found they are very frank and more than willing to discuss the issues. Without a doubt the biggest concern they all have is taxes and the fact that they are being assessed on a regular basis which is driving up taxes. This problem has to be addressed and perhaps now it should go to the state level. I feel my job will be to look into that problem in order to give some relief to our residents."

McKevitt said he believes strongly in community service and because of that he is involved, through the Nassau County Bar Association, in moderating the Mock Trial Club at Holy Trinity High School.

Further, he is also a mentor at the Woodland Middle School in East Meadow, in a program that makes sure children in need of the mentoring skills, receive them from volunteers such as McKevitt. "Consequently," McKevitt added, "I'm up and out by 8 a.m. to make sure I meet with those students before we both start our busy days."

McKevitt said, "My entire career has been involved with public service, which is what I love, and being a member of the New York State Assembly will bring that service to a whole new level."

He is a long-standing member of the East Meadow Kiwanis Club and a member of the East Meadow Chamber of Commerce and is a member of American, New York State and Nassau County Bar Associations.

His family also believes in service to the community. His wife is a social studies teacher in the public school system and before his retirement his father was a New York City police detective, his brother is currently a New York City police sergeant and his mother is the secretary at St. Anne's School in Garden City.

If elected McKevitt will complete O'Connell's term of office and then run again for the seat in the November election.

Zahid-Ali Syed

By Joe Rizza

Zahid-Ali Syed is the Democratic candidate for the special election to be held on Feb. 28 for the 17th Assembly District, which includes the areas of Garden City, New Hyde Park, East Meadow, Mineola, Williston Park, East Williston, Carle Place, Westbury, Floral Park, Albertson and Uniondale.

Syed is looking to fill the seat that was held by longtime Republican Assemblywoman Maureen O'Connell, who left the Assembly to become Nassau County Clerk. Since the seat was held by a Republican and the district is comprised of a majority of Republican voters, Syed faces a difficult task, but nevertheless feels he has a chance.

Syed said that as a labor and civic leader, he feels he is in touch with the needs of the constituents of the district. He describes himself and a working class man who works to support his family of his wife, son and two daughters.

"Most of the people who are working class people don't participate in politics. If you don't participate and you don't get active, you don't know what's going on," said the East Meadow resident.
Raising a family and living in Nassau County as a working class person, Syed feels he knows the problems facing residents. "I'm from the same family. The way they are suffering, I'm suffering the same way," he said.

Syed said he has been a political, labor and civic leader for the last 15 years. He presently serves as a commissioner in the Nassau County Human Rights Commission and as labor union representative for RWDSU Local 338.

"I have been involved in many different issues such as minimum wage and workman's compensation," he said. "I am a working class person and a family guy."

Syed said he would like to see the working class better represented in the state. "The people that come into political office don't know so much about the issues and problems of the working class," he said.

One issue that Syed is well aware of is property taxes especially when it comes to school taxes. On his inaugural address following his re-election, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi stated that Long Islanders send $3 billion more to Albany that they get back in state aid.

"We don't get our fair share back from the state. If you compare us to Westchester, we're not getting the same back as Westchester is. Elected officials talk about property taxes but there is no legislation. If elected, I want to see what I can do," Syed said.

Syed also wants to focus on increasing oversight for school districts to avoid additional scandals and creating more jobs for county residents.

If elected, Syed will join a Democratic majority in the Assembly, something he feels will help the constituency. "I'm sure I can get more benefits for District 17. I already have so many contacts with the Assembly members. Many of them know me personally," he said.

Although Syed may be the underdog in this race, he points out that the residents of the county elected a Democratic County Executive, a Democratic Comptroller and a Democratic District Attorney. "I think the county is changing. The people are realizing they need new people to represent them. Let the working class people come out and run for office because they know what the problems are," he said.
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Tom McKevitt knows community. Not only the East Meadow community, in which he grew up and now lives, but the entire community which he now hopes to represent in the New York State Assembly.

Tom knows, and more than this, understands, the problems and issues facing community, in the 17th AD, in the Town of Hempstead, and in Nassau County, on the whole. In fact, you can say that Tom McKevitt faces these concerns, and tackles them, daily.

As a Deputy Town Attorney for the Town of Hempstead, Tom McKevitt has taken on many of the battles in which our communities have been engaged. The quality of life issues that frustrate and, too often, confound us, are Tom's bread and butter, consumed regularly before the courts and in the trenches. Win some, lose others, no one can say -- at least not with a straight face -- that Tom McKevitt is not out there, day in and day out, fighting for the people of Hempstead Town.

Sure. We know what you're thinking. "Hey, this McKevitt is part of the Republican Machine -- the folks The Community Alliance campaigned fiercely to expunge from Town Hall." A Republican, yes. A Machine politician, hardly.

At The Community Alliance, we believe in good government, fair government, and full representation of the people who place their trust -- and their tax dollars -- in the hands of our elected officials. True, we've had our gripes with the powers-that-be at Hempstead Town Hall (and they continue, mostly unabated and unaddressed), but we refuse to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Tom McKevitt is known to us as a listener, absorbing the needs and wants of the community, and a doer, achieving positive results in an environment that can (and often does) stymie the best of us.

We take absolutely nothing away from Tom's Democratic challenger in this special election, Zahid-Ali Syed. His efforts as a civic and labor leader are to be applauded, and are, most certainly, appreciated.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of not knowing Mr. Syed -- the "up close and personal" that makes the real difference on the community scene. Going forward, we hope to get to know Zahid-Ali Syed better, and to see more of him on community's front lines.

We do know Tom McKevitt, and we like what we've seen and heard over the years. A more dedicated, personable, compassionate and hard-working public servant you will not find in these parts, and we feel assured that residents of the 17th Assembly District will be exceedingly well-served when they send Tom McKevitt to Albany.

On the merits of the case the candidate has made in the community, The Community Alliance wholeheartedly endorses Tom McKevitt for Assembly.

Submitted For Your Approval. . .

From "Empire Zone" To "Twilight Zone" In One Simple Appointment?

The Town of Hempstead has announced the appointment of Welquis "Ray" Lopez, who for the last 14 months has served as the Town's Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development, as the Town's first Economic Development Zone Coordinator. Lopez will oversee the operations of Nassau's first Empire Zone, together with Evette Tuggle, the Nassau County Coordinator. [SEE Newsday, Hempstead Tabs New Empire Zone Overseer.]

Lopez, who will earn upwards of $112,000 a year in his new job -- if he stays in that position for so long -- is a longtime town official (having served previously as Highways Commissioner), is former head of Nassau County's CASA, or Coordinating Agency for Spanish Americans, and was president, back in the day, of the Welquis Lopez Taxi Company.

Lopez also served as President of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Nassau County, and as part of the Amigos de Pataki team, just in case you were wondering on which side his bread is buttered.

Having lived to tell the tale of a rather unremarkable tenure as Town Highways Commissioner (communities within the new Empire Zone can continue to "enjoy" the same potholes and decaying roadbeds as they did in the day when Mr. Lopez was at the wheel), Lopez tried his hand at the helm of the Town's Department of Planning & Development [we bet you didn't even know that the Town of Hempstead has a Department of Planning & Development] -- replacing a true friend of community, Ray Rhoden, who apparently had a falling out of favor with the powers that be at Town Hall and/or GOP Headquarters in Westbury.

Question: How much "planning" and/or "economic development" have you witnessed in the unincorporated areas of the Town of Hempstead during the preceeding 14 months?

Not to diminish the accomplishments of Ray Lopez in service to the residents of the Town of Hempstead (as soon as such accomplishments come to light, we will clue you in), but we do wonder exactly what it is that makes Mr. Lopez uniquely "qualified" (without so much as tacit consideration or, for that matter, solicitation, of other candidates) to take on what will surely be a monumental task of first impression -- guiding the infant that is Nassau's Empire Zone from cradle to, well, the possibilities are left only to the imagination.

Perhaps most disconcerting in this appointment, although certainly not surprising, is that, once again, Dorothy Goosby, the Councilwoman whose District lies in the very heart of the Nassau Empire Zone (and the lone Democrat on the Hempstead Town Board), claims to have been left out of the loop by the reigning Republicans in the decision-making process that resulted in the Lopez coronation. Now what does that portend for the rest of us who live and/or work in the newly created Empire Zone?

Then there was the process itself by which Mr. Lopez was chosen to serve, as if by divine right -- without search, publication, or, it would appear, so much as a passing thought, simply preserving the status quo by tapping a political partisan who, in his time at Town Hall, has demonstrated no superior talent in terms of creative community building.

Face it, the Town of Hempstead has not exactly stood on the cutting edge of "smart growth," or as innovators in "downtown" revitalization. The brick pavers, Victorian-style street lamps, rustic benches and repaved parking lots, all part of the Town's Streetscape Improvement program, haven't done all that much to enhance either the overall aesthetics or the local economics of "Main Street."

On the other side of the development coin, Town Supervisor Kate Murray recently joined County Executive Tom Suozzi in announcing that four Nassau communities -- Baldwin, Roosevelt, Elmont and Inwood -- each deemed to be economically disadvantaged, would share some $300,000 out of a $1 million "visioning" program fund, designed to get the ball rolling on "downtown" revitalization projects. [SEE, Suozzi and Murray Announce Four Communities to Receive Funds as Part of Countywide "Visioning" Plan to Spur Economic Development.]

Whether the "plans" Tom Suozzi and Kate Murray are looking over "envision" the rebirth of "Main Street," or are the schematics for an elaborate escape route out of the Town and County, remains to be seen.

"Hempstead Town officials know that if our mature suburbs are to thrive and prosper, they need active partners in government," Murray said. "Together the town and county will work so that our communities can realize their fullest economic potential."

Impressive words from someone who is quite capable, in our opinion, of using this seed money to plant so much more than street lamps and benches along "Main Street."

We can only hope the partisan shuffle that resulted in the anointment of Mr. Lopez as Economic Development Czar – the perennial dance card at Hempstead Town Hall – doesn’t slowly turn Nassau’s first Empire Zone into a lightless, vacuous suburban version of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

We will be keeping a keen eye on Baldwin, Roosevelt, Elmont and Inwood to see if the Town's appointment augers more than the usual political expediency without resulting economic stimulation. We are ever-hopeful that both County and Town will work together to improve the economic lot and the landscape vistas of one of America's "first suburbs." We are ready and willing to give both Kate Murray and Welquis Ray Lopez the benefit of the doubt. Still, in a township where, historically, planning and development have taken a back seat to partisanship and deception, we have some serious reservations.
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SEE Newsday Editorial, Cooperation in Nassau.

The Graying of Suburbia

Brookings Institution Cites Nassau As One Of America's "First Suburbs"

"A Brookings Institution study last week confirmed what I've been saying all along - that mature suburbs like ours won't generate enough economic growth if we do nothing and just allow them to stagnate."

~Thomas R. Suozzi, Nassau County Executive

A Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program Symposium: One-Fifth of the Nation: A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs

BRUCE KATZ (Vice President and Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings): What is a first suburb? Why do we care? By our definition, first suburb counties are places that adjoin a central city that was one of the hundred most populous cities in 1950. These counties were literally the first to suburbanize, many after World War II, some even prior to World War II, in the era of trolley cars. Over the past half-century, many labels have been given to these places. Older suburbs, inner-ring suburbs, first-tier communities, close-in suburbs. Several weeks ago Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard referenced the latest entry, "inurbs."

We call them first suburbs partly to reflect the sequence of suburbanization, partly to avoid any pejorative term that would inhibit market investment, and partly to acknowledge that these places are worthy of special attention from federal and state governments, private investors, political pundits, and academics. We've got to have a plug for Brookings.

Let me tease out the last point. It's our belief that the first suburbs occupy a unique place in the hierarchy of American jurisdictions. After 50 years or more of development, many are increasingly experiencing the central-city-like challenges that come with age, the infrastructure of these places, the roads, the schools, the commercial corridors, the housing, is in need of reinvestment and even redevelopment. And like cities, these places are diversifying quickly, and while relatively well-off, are struggling to respond to those challenges.

Yet first suburbs in physical form, in cultural attitudes, are quintessential suburban. Almost all were developed in the age of the auto, almost all were developed at a time when the rage of planning was to keep all uses, residential, commercial, industrial, office, separate. Thus they look and feel like classic suburban bedroom communities, for good and bad; quiet, leafy, quality single-family neighborhoods connected by commercial arteries that were often chaotically planned, quickly and cheaply built, and are now traffic-choked, particularly on weekends.

We believe that this distinctive status of first suburbs are still not recognized or understood by many, and that status comes at a heavy price.

Read Sen. Clinton's remarks (PDF—50kb)

Read the full transcript (PDF—357kb)
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Click HERE to read "First Suburbs" data and findings
SEE, New York Times Op-Ed, Extreme Makeover: Nassau
SEE, Newsday Editorial, First Suburbs Need Help

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

East Meadow School Tax Forum Scheduled

When 5.45% May Not Be 5.45% ~ Clearing The Air On Local School Tax Rates

The following appeared in the online edition of the Long Island Press:

East Meadow Skeptical about School Tax

Jaclyn Gallucci 02/22/2006 1:31 pm

Months after East Meadow residents received a letter informing them of a 5.45% increase in school taxes, a public forum has been scheduled to address what some are calling inaccurate and misleading information.

News of the school tax increase came in the form of a letter from Town of Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin, Jr., which implies that the assessor has the freedom to establish assessed values subjectively, rather than using scientific calculations, according to an announcement posted by the East Meadow town website. [Unable to find an "East Meadow town website," The Community Alliance refers readers to the Town of Hempstead website, and in particular, the Town's news release dated November 3, 2005 entitled, Study Proves Assessment Link To Tax Hikes: In Hempstead Village, Higher Values Set By Mineola Strip Homeowners of School Tax Cut- Elsewhere, Assessment Changes Fuel Skyrocketing Taxes.]

On Monday, Feb. 27, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (East Meadow High School auditorium located at 101 Carman Avenue), Nassau Board of Assessors Chairman Harvey Levinson will host a public forum addressing the letter, explain the 5.45% increase, and demonstrate methods homeowners can use to calculate their own school property tax, according to the Nassau County Assessment Department.

“My hope is that my public forum will provide a more transparent view of a complicated process,” Levinson said in a statement yesterday.

The forum will be open to East Meadow residents, according to East Meadow Superintendent Robert R. Dillon, who asks residents who attend to bring a copy of their recent tax bill and, if possible, the letter sent by Clavin last October.

“The specifics from these documents will help us further clarify the magnitude of the tax increases being imposed upon our residents without explanation,” Dillon said in a statement, “and without explanation there is no justification.”
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The Community Alliance has reached out to Town of Hempstead Receiver of Taxes, Don Clavin, for comment and, if possible, for a copy of the letter referenced in the Long Island Press article. [In the interest of getting the word out concerning the February 27th public forum, and in fairness to the Receiver of Taxes, this blog was posted before Mr. Clavin was contacted.] Any response received from Mr. Clavin will be published in this blog.

The Myth of the Master Builder Unmasked

Robert Moses: The Legend And The Legacy

A review and retrospective by Susan Allen

Imagine a Giant straddling the five boroughs of New York City and its outlying suburbs, one massive foot in the roiling Hell Gate and the other on the Atlantic Ocean beachfront of Brooklyn, Queens or the Long Island counties to the east.

The Giant twists around in all directions to survey the metropolis as it looked after the Second World War. Far-flung, isolated Westchester County and Staten Island, dowdy Bronx. It looks like an old city, dated, rickety. Skyscrapers once thought sparkling and modern seem down at the heels, the streets laid out centuries ago by the Dutch and the English clogged with evermore traffic, too many tenement buildings, not enough parks.

Envisioning the new era sure to come, the Giant swoops down to rearrange it all. Spiked steel bridges will link the boroughs and beyond, concrete expressways will eviscerate the decaying slums, blocks of five-story buildings will be plucked up wholesale and grand brick housing projects planted in their place. The ash heap made famous by F.Scott Fitzgerald will be swept away for a glorious urban playground in Queens, the parks in the better Manhattan neighborhoods will teem with theaters, restaurants, swimming pools and other amenities, green parkways will subsume Long Island potato fields and lead out to sublime white beaches.

The Giant doesn’t have to think in human terms, on a human scale. Neighborhoods and streetscapes, the front stoop and the corner tavern, the elevated train, stickball in the street and the sidewalks of New York — all pure sentimentality! They mean nothing. Neither do the potato farmer, the Long Island beachfront landowner, or, later on, the Tuscorara tribe of western New York. If they are in the way of the Giant’s vision they have to go.

This is the impression Robert Caro leaves of a real-life Giant in his mammoth work, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses, the “Master Builder of New York,” surveyed his realm as if from above, made stupendously impossible grand plans and, incredibly, always “got things done.” Caro chronicles the rise of Moses and the way he muscled his way up the ranks in the guise of a devoted, selfless public servant. His reach for power came to a crescendo in the postwar years when he controlled virtually all public works projects and most of the public funding in the state of New York.

The Power Broker reads like a novel of hot political intrigue, entertaining, passionate, exhaustive. But Caro dissects better than any boring doctoral dissertation how government power comes to be, seeing through the multiple public relations facades. Though written thirty years ago, guaranteed you’ll learn the true and horrific mechanics of our very own state government.

As you might expect, eminent domain plays an ugly role in the Moses saga. How he got rid of the entire length of one borough to build the Cross Bronx Expressway would be an unbelievable story, except for the fact that we have our own versions of it in our own time, in our own communities, both urban and rural.

But a more sinister and ultimately more important story involves Robert Moses as the architect of the modern “public authority,” perhaps the most brilliant invention in the annals of lawful government corruption. This type of quasi-government agency uses public money but operates with all the perks of private business, including the means and the political connections to keep the public out of decision-making and, as much as possible, outside the sunshine laws. Originally designed as a simple method of paying for a project from its own income, like collecting tolls to finance a bridge’s construction, Caro describes how Moses “raised this institution to a maturity in which it became the force through which he shaped New York and its suburbs in the image he personally conceived.”

Moses’ legacy remains in another form in today’s spinoff, the so-called “public benefit corporations,” such as Industrial Development Agencies, Redevelopment Corporations, Empire Zones, Regulating Districts, miscellaneous commissions and other euphemistically named organizations with their own czars and power structures — not to mention the exploding growth and expanding reach of our long-standing state administrative agencies and departments.
You can also trace the foundation of other quasi-public entities that rose from Moses’ groundwork, like paid consultants, planners and managers, bodies such as river associations and community action agencies, and the contractual intertwining of government agencies with non-profit organizations. These often-anonymously controlled institutions increasingly hold sway over our lives absent public debate, sometimes colluding with, sometimes bypassing, our elected officials.

It may be farfetched to think there could ever be one Giant in such absolute control as Robert Moses was in his day. But substitute for Moses any of these government or quasi-government agencies, which often have eminent domain powers or the wherewithal to use strong-arm tactics to reach the same ends. Rural residents can easily substitute the politically powerful “environmental” organizations which seek to hold down or obliterate the human activity from their towns and counties — those groups might be the obverse of the “Master Builder” in their grand visions, but not at all in the sophisticated way they climbed into power and how they now employ their tactics of coercive persuasion. Wherever you might live, the lessons and warnings in The Power Broker still ring horribly true.
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Susan Allen is Editor and Publisher of the Adirondack Park Agency Reporter.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Taking On The "Special" Taxing Machines

New Watchdog Group Plans Multi-faceted Attack On Taxing Jurisdictions

Yet unnamed, a new grassroots organization is taking shape in Oceanside, and reaching out to community leaders throughout Nassau County, dedicated to lowering property taxes by addressing the multitude of problems associated with and created by the so-called Special Districts.

That there are more than 400* Special Districts within Nassau County and its inclusive townships, each acting as quasi-independent governments with the authority to set budgets and tax homeowners, is a given. That many of these districts -- from fire to sanitation to water -- are out of control, is coming to light and beginning to register with taxpayers.

First brought to the public's attention by Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson last year (even before the campaign for Town of Hempstead Supervisor began), the disparate and excessive costs associated with maintaining and operating separate and distinct fiefdoms -- each taking a bite out of our wallets -- is both widespread and systemic.

Sanitary Districts, Water Districts, Fire Districts, Library Districts, to name a few, duplicating effort and services, supporting a patronage mill run by political and familial cronies, self-serving and self-perpetuating mini governments paid for and made possible by your tax dollars.

Audits conducted by Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, and an ongoing investigation by NYS Comptroller Alan Hevesi, bear out what many observers and taxpayers already knew: There are too many, doing too little, getting too much, and the taxpayer is getting ripped off -- royally!

Recently, Mr. Weitzman called for a countywide conference to explore the reform of the Special Districts. A daring few have now heeded the call.

And so it was, that out of a failed bid to gain a seat on the Board of Commissioners of a local Town of Hempstead Sanitary District (a bid borne of a desire to expose waste, mismanagement and malfeasance), grew a movement that hopes to educate residents, create transparency, and, ultimately, to consolidate services, eliminating unnecessary and costly layers of government.

Like kids in a candy store, filled with excitement and anticipation, community leaders met last week to form a committee and to brainstorm an agenda. Under the guiding hand of Laura Mallay, President of the South Hempstead Civic Association, the dozen or so civic activists agreed that a non-partisan organization was needed to open the doors of the Special Districts to the cleansing light of day.

The short-term mission is to gather information on the Special Districts -- from budgets, to expenditures, to personnel -- and to disseminate this information to the taxpaying public. [Watch this blog for postings relative to the Sanitary Districts and other taxing jurisdictions that, for the most part, fly beneath the public's radar.]

The group hopes to recruit candidates to run for Commissioners in Special District elections, to lobby for elections to take place on Election Day in November, and to promote a more open, transparent and responsive approach to operating what are essentially self-governing, taxpayer-funded public authorities.

Long-term, this watchdog group will look to our elected officials, particularly the State Legislature (which created the Special District monsters in the first place), to give localities the authority -- and the impetus -- to consolidate services, to eliminate districts that duplicate services more readily and efficiently provided by other agencies or departments, and, in so doing, lowering the tax burden that now consumes homeowners throughout the county.

We say "bravo" to Laura Mallay and her small force of taxpayer watchdogs. We hope that these "hounds" get the "scent" and will stay hot on the trail of those invisible taxing jurisdictions. Once exposed for the wasteful, tax dollar-eating beasts that they are, Mallay & Company should morph from watchdog into attack dog, latching on to the body of the behemoths like a pit bull to the postman's leg; not letting go until the Special Districts have either been brought in line, heeling to the will of the taxpayers, or better yet, taken off line, at long last spayed and neutered.

The next meeting of the taxpayer watchdog group will be held on Wednesday, March 29, 2006 at 7:30 PM in Oceanside. Community advocates interested in becoming involved in this grassroots campaign, and those seeking more information, should contact Laura Mallay at 516-833-6699 or 516-233-4026, or by e-mail at mallay@optonline.net.
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*The number of Special Districts in operation in Nassau County varies widely from report to report -- generally between 200 and 900 -- depending on which districts are included in the count. The lower figure typically represents fire, water and sanitary districts only, while the greater number takes into account library districts, sewer districts, lighting districts, and so forth. Bottom line: There are too many hands in our pockets, and most of them are not our own!
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For a bit of history (recent and otherwise) as to the antics of the Sanitary Districts, we take you back to July 14, 2005, Picking Through The trash at the Town of Hempstead Sanitary Districts. Much remains today as it was then. Only the tax rates have changed!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Taming Twenty Miles Of Ugly

Transforming The Turnpike, From Elmont To East Meadow

All of the talk about Empire Zones, the new Suburbanization, and the revitalization of our "downtowns" and "Main Street" has made us very hungry -- for ideas, for real-time plans, for action.

And so, we put the question out to you, the loyal stalwarts of community, "What is your vision for the rebirth of the Turnpike, the Boulevard, the Avenue or the Road you commonly refer to as your hometown's "downtown?"

Giving life back to our "Main Streets" -- and, in some communities, creating "Main Street" as a first impression -- will take all of us thinking, visualizing, discussing, and acting resolutely to bring about results (in our lifetime) that are aesthetically appealing, economically productive, and people-friendly.

Do we accept the challenge and move our communities -- and our island -- forward? Or do we rest on the laurels of others' words, finding that next year, or five years from now, we are no further along the road to renewal than we are today?

Yes, this will separate the community advocates from the talking heads, the civic activists from the potted plants. Is it time to get started as we advance the cause of the revival of our business districts? You bet it is!

No better place to start than right here and right now. "Guest Blog," anyone? The wrecking ball and the corner stone are, as they say, in your hands, ladies and gentlemen. There is much work to be done.

Let's get to it!

The tools have been placed before us. What we do with them is entirely up to YOU!
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Click HERE to check out mainstreet.org

Click HERE to see what other communities are doing at revitalized-downtowns.com
Check out some Streetscape improvement projects, near and far:
Loydminster, Canada
Austin, Texas
Seattle, Washington
Sydney, Australia
Renton, Washington

Many places, from center cities to outer suburbs, have given new life to their "Main Streets," making "Downtown" the place to live, to work, to play.

Why not Long Island? Why not TODAY?

You Can Get There From Here!

From Brownfields To Greener Pastures: The Rebirth Of The Great Suburban Downtown

Every community has one -- at the very least. A "brownfield." An abandoned movie theater, once the art-deco pride of town, now a crumbling relic serving as cover for drug deals and muggings; A chain of vacant stores, part of a once bustling "Main Street" that, over the years, has yielded both appeal and shoppers to the "big box" stores; that seedy no-tell motel, home to prostitution, violent crime, and the unsavory we keep at bay by putting out of mind; the old concrete plant or scrap metal yard, once integral parts of the local economy, now nothing more than eyesores taking up valuable space in the very heart of community.

The mindset we've kept, at least as long as most of us have lived on this island, is that, well, we simply have to live with the ugly, the outdated, the relics of a time passed that have no place in a modern, suburban setting.

Ah, but what to do?

Perhaps the best way to take the lead on the redevelopment front is, as the old adage goes, by example.

Here's one we happened upon, courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no less. We reprint the story of one suburban town's successful efforts to reclaim, rebuild, and reinvent it's "Downtown."

Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill Redevelopment, Town of Redding
Redding, Connecticut

Cleaning up and redeveloping a brownfield site can be daunting for small communities. The Town of Redding overcame this challenge by working with a developer with brownfield experience to manage the cleanup and redevelopment of a closed industrial site into a healthy, convenient, attractive neighborhood.

Over 1,000 people, including citizens of Redding as well as local, regional, state, and federal stakeholders participated in workshops that helped define the cleanup plan, historic preservation guidelines, and master plan for the redevelopment.

Closure of the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill in 1989 left a 55-acre, contaminated, industrial site in Redding’s Georgetown section, the primary commercial zone for this town of 8,400 residents. By 2002, the facility that was once a major source of tax revenue had accrued unpaid taxes of over $1 million. To revitalize the area and protect public health, the town partnered with a developer who not only paid the tax lien in full, but also cleaned up the contamination and is redeveloping the site into a mixed-use neighborhood. This partnership has been good for the town and the developer—each benefits from the new homes, businesses, services, and revenue.

In a week-long public workshop, over 1,000 stakeholders from the town and from regional, state, and federal governments developed the design for the new neighborhood. A key component of the plan is a lively diversity of uses, including 416 homes in a wide variety of styles, 109,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 113,000 square feet of office space, a performing arts center with a black box theater, and a health facility with a public pool. To honor the mill’s heritage, 15 of the site’s historic buildings will be rehabilitated, and 21 new buildings will be designed in a historically sensitive manner.

Pedestrian-friendly design features such as trails, wide sidewalks, short blocks, and narrow streets encourage people to walk around the neighborhood. To give residents more transportation choices, the developer is building a commuter train station that will provide easy access to Manhattan.

The Gilbert & Bennett wire mill redevelopment is a model for complex reuse projects. The strong public-private partnership invited community input in the design process, facilitated the remediation plan, and expedited adoption of the master plan.

When the neighborhood is complete, the Town of Redding expects that it will create over 1,700 permanent jobs and provide the town with $4.7 million in new, annual property tax revenues.

Is it any wonder that Redding, CT, was rated Connecticut's number one small town?

UPDATE FROM REDDING, CT: Redding Brownfield Redevelopment Project Receives $600,000 Grant from State to Help With Contaminant Removal
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It is hard to believe that the brownfield depicted in the lead photo above (a declining shopping mall in Lakewood, CO) could be literally transformed into a development that will include vibrant retail space (as shown in the rendering at left), 1,300 new homes, including town homes, loft apartments, and live-work units, and open, "green" spaces for recreational use.

Yet, this is exactly what is happening in towns, villages and hamlets across America.

Why don't we see more of this kind of redevelopment on our Long Island? Why do we address today's tribulations and tomorrow's concerns with yesterday's tunnel vision? Good questions.

Perhaps the answers lie in a populace mired in old ways of thinking; in the fact that our local governments continue to "plan," "zone," and build much as they did a century ago; in our own inertia, a failure to get moving in the right direction borne out of the fear that it will be the wrong direction.

Other than the waters of the Long Island Sound, what is it that separates, say, a Town of Redding from a Town of Hempstead -- the intuitively progressive from the hopelessly regressive?

Is it that because we're "bigger" we can't be "better?" The answer to that one is as simple as the troubles faced by our dysfunctional "Downtowns" and aging "Main Streets." It's not just a matter of money -- the funding is out there for those ready to pull the brass ring. [Besides, if we wait until "tomorrow," what we truly must do today will only cost us twice as much.] It certainly is not a lack of ideas. [Take half the number of e-mails we get at The Community Alliance and you could still build a monument taller by far than the lighthouse at Montauk Point.]

Perhaps it all boils down to that basic want of will as is necessary to find the way.

Can we turn Long Island's brownfields into the greener pastures now being sewn in places like Redding, CT and Lakewood, CO? Of course we can. That is, if we really want to!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Deep In The Heart Of Texas

Proposals for Funding Public Education from the Lone Star State

Did you say "taxes" or "Texas?" Was that "STAR" or "Lone Star?"

Not that we would place much reliance upon initiatives that come out of the state that is first in executions and last in education, but at least a few of the recommendations that have resulted from a Texas study bear repeating here, and consideration up in Albany.

The following "report" was prepared and presented by The Hoover-Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, Hoover Institution, and can be found, along with other studies and suggestions, at End Robin Hood Now.

Given the historic implications of the Texas education model, which leaves most children behind and takes from the poor to give to the rich, even these recommendations, where applicable, should be taken with more than a small grain of salt. This is simply "food for thought," with the likelihood of serious indigestion to follow.

We do agree, wholeheartedly, with one pertinent finding: A household’s property value is a poor measure of its ability to pay for local schools. It does not necessarily follow, however, as the study concludes, that local property taxes encourage school districts to be good, cost-conscious, and/or efficient. In theory, this sounds true. On Long Island, the practice demonstrates otherwise.

1. The key problems for Texas school finance are
• Ensuring that there are sufficient resources to educate all students in the state, regardless of their own family incomes;
• Finding statewide sources of revenue to fund this operation.

These two problems are shared by all other U.S. states, but the problems are more difficult in Texas because family incomes across the state vary widely and because districts’ nonresidential property wealth varies idiosyncratically with mineral deposits.

2. The current Foundation School Program, popularly known as Robin Hood, shares certain features of other states’ school finance systems. Given the amount of revenue it generates, however, the Robin Hood recapture system produces maximum inefficiency because a Chapter 41 district does not enjoy any increase in its revenue when its property values rise. Other state systems that generate similar or greater revenue are much more efficient.*

3. Robin Hood gives districts a financial incentive to maximize their weighted average daily attendance (WADA). Districts do this by assigning more students to remedial programs and keeping them there longer. As a result, the share of students who are disabled keeps growing in Texas, even though the state has significantly improved prenatal care and health insurance coverage for children. (In 1991–92, there were 1.29 WADA for every child enrolled; in 2002–3, there were 1.35 WADA for every child enrolled.)

4. Robin Hood also gives districts financial incentives to keep students in programs for the limited English proficient (LEP), rather than speeding their acquisition of English.

5. There are substantially better systems of school finance than Robin Hood, and this is an ideal time to replace it because the system is in crisis. Robin Hood has generated such high property tax rates and so much inefficiency that voters are desperate for property tax relief; most districts have reached the $1.50 property tax rate ceiling, at which the system’s constitutionality becomes questionable.

Guiding Principles
1. Child-Centered Funding. School finance should be on a child basis, not a district basis. Moreover, parents should know how much revenue has been allocated for the education of their child. Such knowledge facilitates school reform.

2. Transparency. Parents, voters, and school board members should know how a child’s funding breaks down into local revenue, state aid, and federal aid. They should know how the expenditure per child breaks down into compensation of regular classroom teachers, compensation of other instructional staff, spending on facilities, spending on transportation,
and spending on all other functions. Such knowledge facilitates good governance of schools.

3. Children, Not WADAs. Spending and revenues should be expressed in terms of actual children. Funding should not be expressed in WADA units, which have no clear meaning to the public and obfuscate school funding.

4. Cost-of-Education Adjustments That Do Not Reward Failing Districts. In distributing aid, the state should account for cost differences that are out of a district’s control but should not give implicit rewards to districts that perform badly. Cost adjustments should be exclusively based on measures that are out of a district’s control because they are (a) determined by markets or (b) purely a function of the district’s population.

5. Districts Should Be Fully Insured against the Costs Associated with Severely, Permanently Disabled Students. Texas has some very small districts in which a few severely, permanently disabled students could constitute an unmanageable cost shock. Students who fall into this category include the blind, deaf, those with genetic handicaps, the mentally
retarded, and those with a physical disability.

6. State Aid Should Otherwise Be Block Grants Based on the Characteristics of a District’s Students. Most students with limitations have mild or remediable conditions. Districts should have no financial incentive to keep such students in remedial programs longer than is necessary. Therefore, districts should not receive state aid based on the number of children they classify as disabled or limited English proficient but on the characteristics of their student populations, especially measures of poverty and native language.

7. Redistribution Should Be Lump Sum, to the Maximum Extent Possible. Efficient systems of school finance use lump sum redistribution as much as possible. That is, the state should equalize districts’ access to the first dollars of school revenue up to a solid foundation amount. The state should not equalize the last dollars of school revenue. These are basic principles of good public finance.

8. Local Control Should Be Maintained and the Last Dollar Should Be a Local Dollar. Local governance of schools is vital because it is much easier for local people to observe whether their school is performing well and spending money efficiently than for state officials to make such observations. However, if the last dollar of school spending is not a local dollar, local people have little incentive to ensure that their schools spend efficiently. Also, if the last dollar of school spending is not a local dollar, then a school administrator whose performance is outstanding cannot be rewarded by the local people who witness that performance. In short, having the last dollars be raised and controlled locally generates incentives for schools to spend efficiently and to improve their performance.

9. State Aid Based on Households’ Ability to Pay, Not Their Property Values. In order to distribute aid efficiently, a state must determine the ability to pay of each district’s residents and property owners. To the maximum extent possible, the state should measure each family’s ability to pay by its income, as opposed to the value of its property.

10. State Aid Funded by an Efficient Tax. No tax is painless and every tax has opponents. However, the tax that funds state aid ought to be as efficient as possible. It should follow key principles of an efficient tax: the base ought to be as broad and the rate as low as possible; the base ought not be one that shrinks substantially when taxed; there ought not be double or "pyramid” taxation wherein the same base gets taxed multiple times.

11. New State Revenues for Education Should Generate Actual Property Tax Relief. If the state raises new tax revenue for education, property taxes should be reduced and stay reduced. The new taxes should provide property tax relief, not just increase the total tax burden.

1. To the maximum extent possible, the new school finance formula ought to be expressed on a per child basis, not a per district basis. It ought to be easy for the public to learn that a child in district A gets one amount of state aid and a child in district B gets another amount of state aid.

2. At all levels of reporting, funding should be reported per actual child (average daily attendance), not inWADA units.

3. Severely or permanently disabled students are a tiny share of the state’s total student population. Less than 1 percent of students in Texas are blind, deaf, mentally retarded,
genetically handicapped, or in need of residential care. The state should determine the extra costs associated with such students, and state aid should fully insure districts against such costs.

4. Most students with disabilities and other special situations have conditions that are mild or remediable. For these students, there is a danger that districts will keep them out of regular classrooms too much or address their problems too slowly. Such students will be best off if districts offer them the remediation that will most efficiently address their needs, not the remediation that maximizes revenue. Unfortunately, the current system of state aid gives districts a financial incentive to keep students out of regular classrooms too often and for too many years. This needs to be changed. State aid for all nonsevere, nonpermanent disabilities should be based on the characteristics of the student population that a district faces, not how it classifies them. Aid should be in the form of per student block grants based on the existence of students in the district’s population who are poor, not native-English speakers, and so on.

This system will not create perverse rewards for districts that keep children out of mainstream classrooms or that keep students excessively long in non-English language settings.

5. The cost-of-education index should be based only on costs that are out of the district’s control. In order to be out of a district’s control, a cost must be caused by the market or by the local population. Measures of such costs include • Local pay for college graduates in private employment (set by the local private labor market);
• Local pay for nonprofessional staff such as janitors and bus drivers in private employment (set by the local private labor market);
• Local costs for private construction contracts (set by the local private market for construction);
• The percentage of the school-aged population from households with foreign-born parents from non-English speaking countries (local population);
• The percentage of the school-aged population from poor households (local population);

6. Empirical analyses of school cost information have been used for a variety of purposes. Because the analyses rely on observing the current operations of schools under some of the perverse incentives that exist, it is not possible to determine reliably how much spending is needed.

On the other hand, such analyses can help to inform decisions on cost differences for districts because of such things as special education, LEP, district size, or differences in the labor market for teachers. Determining the costs of providing local education should not be based on typical statistical analyses that relate student achievement to inputs. Cost estimates based on statistical analyses with published “coefficients” for input-achievement relationships are inappropriate because they are not based on exogenous variation (experimentally driven variation) in student characteristics, programs, and expenditures. Inevitably, such analyses generate implicit rewards for districts that fail because those districts automatically appear to have high educational costs for their achievement.

Thus, statistical analyses tend not only to compensate districts for having higher costs that are beyond their control but also to compensate districts for excessive costs that are under their control — that is, they reward inefficient districts that have made bad decisions in the past. Such statistical analyses have a variety of names (“efficient cost frontier analysis,” “production function analysis,” “professional judgment,” and so on), but their distinctive feature is that they do not rely on exogenous (experimentally driven) variation in school inputs.

Although they appear definitive, they cannot reliably circumvent the inefficiency that surrounds the current school operations with the existing perverse incentives. Such statistical analyses often appeal to state legislatures in search of an answer to the question “How much should a good education cost in this state?” State legislatures drawn by this appeal, however, later regret their decision to accept such statistical analyses: they lose all say over their own state’s school finance (which is taken over by plaintiffs and the courts), and they see costs rise uncontrollably, driven by such outside analyses instead of by proper legislative decisions.

These estimates can provide relevant information about the differential costs of programs for special education, LEP, and disadvantaged populations that, used with other sources of data, help determine cost adjustments that enter into overall state funding—but their use should be carefully confined to just that.

7. The most efficient systems of school finance rely on block grants. These systems minimize the inefficiency and pain caused by any given amount of redistribution by being
• Most stable
• Least controversial
• Most consistent with local control (because the last dollar is a local dollar)
• Most able to achieve equality of school spending over the long term
• Least likely to generate unintended or perverse financial incentives
• Most consistent with the principles of good public finance Systems that rely on block grant redistribution are often known as “foundation aid” systems. Generous foundation aid systems have been used successfully in several other states, including some with substantial variation in household incomes and district property wealth (e.g., Massachusetts and New York).

The foundation level for each district should take account of uncontrollable costs, costs for the severely permanently disabled, and costs based on the language and poverty of a district’s student population. The state should then measure each district’s ability to pay for its foundation level out of its own resources (see below). State aid fills the gap, if any.

8. A block grant system has no recapture of the Robin Hood form, which ought to be avoided because it maximizes inefficiency, given the amount of funds redistributed.

9. The state should measure each district’s ability to pay as accurately as possible. A district’s ability to pay has two parts: the ability to pay of its households and the ability to pay of commercial and other nonresidential property owners.

A household’s property value is a poor measure of its ability to pay for local schools. For instance, elderly households and longtime residents often have property values that are disproportionately high relative to their incomes. Moreover, property values reflect the efficiency of local schools: efficient local schools cause property values to rise. In short, there are multiple reasons why property values are poor proxies for ability to pay. [Emphasis added.]

To the extent possible, a state should use indicators of household incomes as the measure of ability to pay. Several indicators are available for Texas school districts: household incomes based on census data; payroll data; and data on the receipt of welfare, social security, and other social insurance programs. At least 50 percent of the measure of households’ ability to pay should be based on income measures, as opposed to residential property values. For instance, census data can be used to compute the total household income in a district, and payroll and social insurance data can be used to keep the income measure up to date.

Residential property values may be used as another indicator of households’ ability to pay but should not determine more than 50 percent of the overall measure of households’ ability to pay. Several states use a combination of household income and residential property values to measure households’ ability to pay.

10. Ideally, the state would use incomes to measure the ability to pay of commercial and other property owners in a district. Currently, this is not practical in Texas. Consequently, districts’ nonresidential property wealth must continue to be used as a measure of the ability to pay of commercial and other nonresidential property owners.

11. When a district does an unusually good job educating students given its spending, its property values rise because people want to live in the district. Local property taxes that fund local school spending ensure that good districts are rewarded:
• An unusually good district experiences rising property values (good for homeowners).
• Homeowners may pay more property taxes but will experience more generously funded schools if they do.
• School staff tend to be rewarded (good for staff).
Thus, local property taxes encourage districts to be good.

In contrast, statewide property taxes that fund state aid penalize good districts. With statewide property taxes, residents of an unusually good district pay more taxes, even if they are no richer than residents of other districts. The residents of an unusually good district receive no recompense for paying unusually high taxes. Thus, statewide property taxes discourage districts from being good. They are uniquely bad taxes for funding state aid.

State aid can be funded using a variety of statewide tax bases, all of which are painful and have opponents. However, among them, statewide property taxes are uniquely inefficient and should be especially avoided.

12. Any new state taxes should produce true property tax relief (see below), but they should also be efficient taxes. Efficient taxes follow key principles such as the base ought to be as broad and the rate as low as possible; the base ought not be one that shrinks substantially when taxed; and there ought not to be double or “pyramid” taxation wherein the same base gets taxed multiple times.

In Texas, the range of viable taxes that fulfill these criteria is small because the sales tax rate is already high, statewide property taxes are inefficient (the base shrinks greatly when taxed and taxation perversely punishes high-performing districts), and income taxes are unconstitutional.

The remaining taxes that are viable include those of the business activity form in which business receipts are taxed but an allowance is made for all purchased inputs that are taxed at a prior level (to avoid double taxation). If the base of such a tax is set as broadly as possible, the rate can be low. Such a broadbased, relatively efficient tax would make Texas a more attractive state for businesses and jobs if it replaces the franchise tax and generates substantial property tax relief.

13. To ensure that new state taxes for education generate true and lasting property tax relief, the state should require that
• Each district automatically roll back its local property taxes by an amount commensurate with the district’s receipt of new revenues from the state.
• Districts hold a referendum on any proposed school system budget that is growing at a rate faster than the rate of inflation. A district that proposes a faster-than-inflation rate budget and does not have the budget passed in a referendum will remain on its previous year’s budget plus an inflation factor. If local property taxes generate more revenue than the budget requires, the local property tax rate must automatically be reduced. This is the system used in some other states (see figure 1 and table 1 below).

Several states have referenda that require a supermajority, such as 60 percent, so that spending does not increase without widespread voter approval. Referenda are required for
• All school budgets in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York (except in city districts)
• All budget increases in Montana, Louisiana, and Delaware
• Budget increases over a certain rate (usually the rate of inflation) in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington, and West Virginia

14. The Robin Hood system of school finance can be replaced by a much superior one, and all districts ought eventually to move to the new system. In the short term, a comprehensive hold-harmless provision that is gradually phased out can smooth the transition for districts so that they can adjust efficiently.

15. To ensure that the state and others learn from the changes in school finance, data should be gathered that facilitate evaluation by the state and external researchers. Most school finance data are automatically collected in the course of administering the system and are public information. However, if budget referenda are held, data on the proposed budget, voter turnout, and vote shares should be collected. In addition, data on the services received by students with limitations should continue to be collected, even if the state aid allocated to such students is based on an incoming assessment of their limitations.

Table 1. School Tax Referenda Requirement Laws: 1998–1999
Referenda on tax levies over specified millage rate (16 states)
Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia
Referenda on all tax increases (6 states)
Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey (most districts)
Referenda on all annual school budgets or all tax levies (6 states)
Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, New York (noncity districts), Vermont, Wisconsin (most districts)
No referenda (17 states) Alaska, California, Connecticut (except in small towns), Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania (all but 4 districts),
Tennessee, Virginia, Wyoming

Varies by district (5 states)
Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina
Compiled from Public School Finance Programs of the United States and Canada: 1998–99.