Spitzer To Take On Special Districts
"Lead or get out of the way," could be a better header for this story, for while all politics is local -- or, as is the case of the Town of Hempstead, where leadership comes in the form of Murraygrams and costly TV spots, LOCO -- in the absence of any real movement on the baseline toward curbing the abuses of those so-called special districts, the Governor is poised to step in.
Newsday reports on renewed examination of the evils that call themselves, among other names, sanitary districts, water districts, sewer districts, lighting districts, parking districts, et al -- governmental subdivisions that by any name are simply patronage mills and tax traps.
Governor Spitzer plans on setting up a "Commission on Local Government Efficiency." [Great! Yet another study group.] Hopefully, Kate Murray won't get the nod as Committee Chair (yet another thing out of her "control"), and the Commission won't become just one among way too many "blue ribbon" panels whose sound and fury typically signify nothing.
As for our "commission's" findings, we concluded long ago -- without empanelling a "think tank" -- that local government in New York is entirely inefficient. Efficiency requires competence, accountability, responsiveness, and, maybe every hundred years or so, a thorough house cleaning. . .
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Spitzer targets tax 'fiefdoms'
New gov wants to consolidate state's 4,200 taxing districts, calling them expensive and burdensome
BY REID J. EPSTEIN
Newsday Staff Writer
Of all the ambitious plans Gov. Eliot Spitzer laid out in last week's State of the State speech, the most difficult may be consolidation of some of the state's 4,200 independent taxing districts.
It's a grand idea sure to gain favor from politicians - except those whose jurisdictions would be eliminated.
"You have vested special interests who have been operating these districts as their own personal fiefdoms for over 50 years, some of them 100 years," Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman said. "There's an institutional bias against giving up this power."
In his speech, Spitzer said he would appoint a Commission on Local Government Efficiency to report back to him with a plan.
"We must summon the political will to face the reality that 4,200 taxing jurisdictions are simply too many, too expensive and too burdensome," he said.
Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Anderson said last week she did not have details on the size of the commission or when its members would be selected.
"Our appointments secretary has been working around the clock," she said. "We've been here three days. We're going to work as quickly as we can."
In Nassau alone, there are some 200 special districts, a figure that does not include the county's 64 villages, 47 fire departments and 65 school districts. In all, there are more than 400 different public bodies that collect taxes.
"He's 100 percent right that it's a problem," County Executive Thomas Suozzi said. "I've been talking about it for years. This can help to push it forward."
Suozzi, who challenged Spitzer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, last week blasted a dozen Nassau water districts and municipalities that have declined to allow the county to attach emergency radio transmitters to their water towers."
They'll say it's about local control and better service," Suozzi said. "But I think it's just about control."
In Suffolk, where the county provides water service, County Executive Steve Levy said Spitzer's message will help his effort to consolidate overlapping taxing districts.
"We've been working very hard in my commissions to have greater coordination between towns, counties and villages," Levy said. "This state proposal could help us facilitate this idea."
Like many of Spitzer's plans, consolidating or eliminating special districts would appear to be a long-term proposition. The state banned the creation of new commission-run districts seven decades ago, but 101 that predate the law remain in Nassau alone. The other 99 are town-run.
In a December report, Weitzman concluded that the county's special districts could save between 10 percent and 15 percent of their operating costs - an annual tab of between $23.8 million and $35.7 million - through a more efficient operation.
Whether Spitzer can succeed in eliminating or consolidating the special districts, rather than just issuing a report about the problem, remains to be seen.
"I think that he set a very ambitious and exciting agenda and if anybody can do it, it's Gov. Spitzer," Suozzi said. "But if it was easy, somebody would have done it already."
Weitzman echoed the thought, citing a century of inertia that Spitzer will have to overcome if he is to reach his stated goal.
"It took 100 years to get to where we are now and I don't believe that this could be done overnight," he said. "But if you have a governor committed to reforming government, there are amazing powers up in Albany that can be exercised."
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Where the money goes
One home in Port Washington, with a market value of $739,600, has an annual assessment of $11,378, payable to 17 taxing entities.
Here is how the money is allocated.
School taxes $7,030.80 = 61.8%
General taxes $4,347.21 = 38.2%
TOTAL ASSESSMENT $11,378.01
Total Nassau County taxes $1,304.69 30.0%
Total Town of North Hempstead taxes $934.35 21.5%
Total district taxes $2,108.17 48.5%
GENERAL TAX BREAKDOWN
Nassau CountyEnvironmental bond $11.67
General fund $350.72
Fire prevention $42.53
Nassau Comm. College $128.63Police $771.14
Total county taxes $1,304.69 = 30.0%
Port Washington district taxes
Water pollution $430.35
Total district taxes $2,108.17 = 48.5%
Town of North Hempstead
General fund $166.39
Port WashingtonFire District $197.84
Port Washington Parking District $17.33
Other town taxes $50.90
Total town taxes $934.35 = 21.5%
SCHOOL TAX BREAKDOWN(Port Washington School District)
LIBRARY TAX $422.31 6.0%
TOTAL SCHOOL TAX $6,608.49 94%
SOURCE: NASSAU COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF ASSESSMENT
Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.