Thursday, June 07, 2007

Throw Another Log On The Fire. . .

. . .And Add Another Study On Local Government

In 2005, the Nassau County Assessor, Harvey Levinson, exhaustively studied the inefficiency of local government in Nassau County, and in particular, the waste and cost-disparity of the special taxing jurisdictions.

Shortly thereafter, the Nassau County Comptroller, Howard Weitzman, followed suit with several audits of the Sanitary Districts, exposing not only inefficiency, lack of transparency, and little if any accountability, but outright corruption as well.

The County Comptroller also issued several relevant and detailed reports on the special districts, including, Nassau County Special Districts: The Case For Reform, and Cost-Saving Ideas For Special Districts In Nassau County.

Then came the audits of the State Comptroller, with similar findings.

Not long after Eliot Spitzer took office as Governor, he formed a Commission to study the efficiency of local government, whose work is in progress.

And now, Nassau County Executive, Tom Suozzi -- who's been talking consolidation and cost-saving since before he won a second term -- has joined forces with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (call 'em the T-N-T team) to study our very special "districts," both leaders calling for such "reforms" as the election of commissioners on a single day, and putting district budgets before the voters (ala school district budgets, we suppose -- and you know how much "control" the public really has over those).


The problems aren't new. The solutions, many of them obvious (such as consolidating districts that do not operate at full capacity; centralizing the budget process for all districts, which process must be entirely public and transparent; having all special district commissioners serve on a voluntary basis -- without pay -- as do school board trustees, thus taking the punch out of patronage; and standardizing the costs/taxes for like services, while eliminating services that duplicate or overlap), aren't new.

All the commissions and studies in the world won't amount to a hill of beans unless and until the State Legislature -- which adjourns in a couple of weeks, and is not likely to return to Albany until January, 2008 -- decides they're going to actually reign in these wooly mammouths of a bygone era.

Fat chance, given that these are the folks who gave us the hundreds of public authorities that no one -- not even the Legislature -- has control over. These are the guys who spend days eulogizing deceased members from the floor of chambers, but can't seem to find the time to tackle the issues that impact upon the living.

And so, study we must, it would seem.

From Albany to Mineola, the talk of taming the special taxing jurisdictions is often loud and always media-friendly. On the one hand, we are told that "taxpayers don't know alot about these districts", on the other, that there's "a reason this issue has resonance for residents." Hmm. Do we know too much, or not nearly enough?

And so we begin again, like that old children's song about Michael Finnegan.

One wonders, though, whether we will ever see the finish line, or this issue too, like so many matters of consequence before it, will simply fade from the foreground, fodder for future generations of Governors, State Legislators, County Executives, State and County Comptrollers, Assessors, and, no doubt, bloggers.
- - -
Doubting Thomases? No, a team this time
Joye Brown

Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, and Thomas Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, smiled and gave each other a hug yesterday.

But now should come a confession: They hugged after I muttered aloud what I had been thinking.

Tom and Tom, who for too long couldn't, er, abide each other, are working together.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Or so the saying goes. And the enemy, this day, is the myriad special districts that feed hundreds of dollars each into high property taxes in New York State, and especially on Long Island.

Tom and Tom's camaraderie - and zeal for change - seemed genuine; and that, for someone who covered the contentious 2001 primary race for county executive that embittered their relationship and split the county Democratic party, was genuinely a good thing to see.

Yesterday, Suozzi and DiNapoli walked together down a hallway and into a news conference in Mineola to make a case for modest reforms that could spark significant change.Tom had ventured from New York City to stand on Tom's turf. Their shared podium, however, bore the higher-ranking comptroller's seal.Together they suggested new state laws that would designate a single day for electing commissioners and voting on some special district budgets and also would mandate that districts post budgets, agendas and other essential information online.

Tom, the comptroller, took to the podium first."There's a reason this issue has resonance for residents," DiNapoli demonstrated, with the help of a few pie charts.Long Islanders pony up property taxes to 240 special districts, which account for less than 5 percent of such districts statewide - but half of the $1.3 billion in revenue collected by all of those districts statewide.

Tom, the county executive, then joined in to drive the point home.

"Taxpayers don't know a lot about these districts," Suozzi said. "The point is to shed light. It will take years to consolidate or do whatever, but the first step has to be to shed light."

The graphs in DiNapoli's presentation came from a report his office issued in March, which cited recent school and special district scandals on Long Island as justification for determining whether districts statewide are transparent and accountable enough to taxpayers.Suozzi, meanwhile, has been floating the idea of consolidating sewer districts and school district business functions.

He also is working with the Horace Hagedorn Foundation and earlier this week began soliciting bids for a study that would - for for the first time ever - consider various special district and other government consolidation scenarios and how much taxpayer money they could save.

During the news conference, a reporter asked DiNapoli and Suozzi whether they could have predicted, six years ago, during that fateful primary fight, that they would come to work so closely together.I didn't hear the answer. I was too busy watching them trying to discern, from their body language, whether this newfound, and welcome, camaraderie was real.

But I did see Tom Suozzi and Tom DiNapoli laugh. And heard both of them repeat that tax relief would remain high on their shared agenda.They acknowledged that nothing would come of their proposals so late in this state legislative session. But, Tom and Tom said, they wanted to focus attention on their proposals, early.

Hopefully, the hug helped.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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