Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Where The Buck Never Stops

Passed, Borrowed Against, And Taxed Along The Way, The Two Towns Of Hempstead Are Revisited

It was a little over two years ago, in June of 2005 -- a battle raging for the coveted Supervisor's seat in the Town of Hempstead (Kate Murray won that race, as we all know, and has been sitting on that seat of hers ever since) -- that this blog published The Two Towns of Hempstead.

In view of what can only be characterized as the stagnation at Hempstead Town Hall over the past two years -- if not the last one hundred, or so -- we thought it appropriate at this time (with Kate Murray running for re-election against, umm, who-knows-who) to revisit our Two Towns, and to see what gains we have made, as taxpayers, as homeowners, as, well, a community.

Problems Aplenty, Few of Them New

If we run through the laundry list of grievances that prompted the creation of The Community Alliance -- the proliferation of illegal accessory apartments; the absence of effective code enforcement; nonexistent planning; haphazard zoning; the exodus of our workforce and our children; just to name but a few -- we fret that precious little has changed. Certainly, very little for the better.

Yes, the Town of Hempstead has an excellent bond rating -- lest you hadn't read about that in one of Ms. Murray's press releases, or seen a Kate-spot on TV. Of course, that simply means the Town can borrow more money, giving us a tax freeze now, making us pay principal and interest, later, after the thaw.

Oh, the press releases, the glossy newsletters, and the fabled Murraygrams from Hempstead Town Hall will tell you how wonderful life is in our township -- the substantive news about, say, far too little in the way of affordable housing units, squeezed in somewhere between Kate Murray's Sun-tanning Tips and her sojourn by kayak down the Levy Preserve -- but those in the know (and those who dare to venture afoot into that which lies beyond the residential neighborhoods), know better.

Revitalization of our aging infrastructure, particularly in business districts long in decline, amounts to little more than a spit and a lick. A Victorian-style streetlamp here. A stylized metal bench there. Surround it all by a few brick pavers, so we can watch the weeds grow through the cracks in the mortar, and voila!

The elimination of blight, wherever it may be so designated, a case study in "How Not To." Brownfields are browner than ever. Renewal, much like the facade that fronts projects proudly proclaimed as successes by the Town clones, hiding the fact that, in truth, what is old is, ah, old.

A Good Face, But No Facelift

Whitewash it. Promise to demolish it. Stand in front of it and hold a press conference, and they can't cover up, hard as they may try, that our downtowns are downright dirty and dismal; our streets and boulevards are pock-marked and littered; our public places, save for the few favored by officialdom, are neglected; and, aside from calling them "special," our local water districts, sanitary districts, and fire districts -- just three out of hundreds of self-serving fiefdoms -- are but the expansive and expensive vestiges of an era (error?) long gone. Often under Town title, Town color, and Town name, but nowhere close to being under Town control.

Yes, It Takes A Village

Now, if you reside in an incorporated village within the Town of Hempstead, you are probably scratching your head and asking, "What are these bloggers talking about?"

Take up residence in an unincorporated no-man's-land within the township, however, and you understand exactly what we're saying.

From Wantagh in the east to Elmont in the west, a government that boasts its dominion over America's largest township, is, alas, the laggard in maintaining the quality of life for which the governed pay dearly.

A government that is said to react to the wants, the needs, the vision of its citizens, instead stands still and silent in the face of challenges to the status quo.

Accountability? When was the last time Kate Murray stood before a camera and said, "I take responsibility?"

A Crisis of Confidence

It is not a question of competence. No, there are many bright, competent, and capable people at Hempstead Town Hall, and we include among them, our constant chiding (at the risk of being labeled "Misogynists"), and sometimes over-the-top (yet no less well-placed) derisiveness aside, Kate Murray, Supervisor.

It is, rather, a crisis of confidence -- a confidence that many of us, as ardent community advocates, have, over these long and many years, lost.

It is a matter of leadership, that is, actually taking the lead in reforming government, reformulating policy, and reinvigorating ideas and ideals that, seemingly long ago, fell by the wayside.

It is a matter of championing the causes of the people, rather than relegating them to boards and commissions, staffed by and beholden to the old school powers-that-be, out of touch with the common folk, and out of tune with the public good.

It is, yes, that "vision thing" -- not only approaching problems by visualizing the solutions (or, at least, accepting that we have problems), but having the gumption and, if necessary, the gall, to turn a plan of action into action itself.

It is, measure for measure, a matter of acting in accord with the wishes of the governed -- garnished with the strength and wisdom to act responsibly, and with the best interests of our nation's first suburb in mind and at heart -- rather than to react only when a story breaks in the pages of Newsday.

Sad to say, we haven't come very far in our quest to "take back our Town." We still find ourselves telling the tales of The Two Towns of Hempstead. [And they are many and varied, indeed, as the posts on this blog shall attest.]

The "do" and the "do-nothing." The "able" in spirit and "disabled" in functionality. The "compassionate" (at least toward cats, dogs, and other pets), and that "passion" for community that appears but as afterthought to the photo op and sound byte.

And so, we revisit The Two Towns of Hempstead, and wonder whether, two, five, or ten years hence, our travels will not bring us back full circle to a town that time forgot.
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The Two Towns of Hempstead
How The Other Half Lives… And What The Other Half Pays

We’ve all heard tell of the two Americas – one for the rich and privileged, and the other for the rest of us. And, of course, the two Nassaus – one for the opulent and green North Shore, the other for the forgotten and deforested South Shore. But what about the two Towns of Hempstead?

Yes, the two Towns of Hempstead. One under the stewardship of incorporated villages, where zoning laws and building codes are strictly enforced and local control means just that, local control. And the other Town of Hempstead, the land of the unincorporated, where the vestiges of the wild west still reign. On the zoning front, exceptions carve up every rule. Code enforcement is a four letter word. And there is about as much “local control” over those “special” taxing jurisdictions as the hopelessly incontinent have over their own bladders.

The two Towns of Hempstead. One for the connected and party faithful, who would have us believe that folks are willing to pay twice as much as their neighbors for garbage collection, and that we somehow need the services of those sanitary districts 6 days a week. And the other Town of Hempstead, where unsuspecting residents and business owners are paying double the property tax paid by their counterparts in the aforementioned Town of Hempstead, and where illegal apartments artificially drive up assessments, destroy the tax base, and impoverish entire communities.

The two Towns of Hempstead. One where government by press release and photo opportunity is accepted and commonplace. And the other, where residents pay nearly $2 million dollars a year for postage so that the Town Supervisor can tell you only what she wants you to know. One Town of Hempstead, where single-party rule has been the practice for nearly a century. The other Town of Hempstead, whose place in government has been relegated to a single seat on the Town Board, whose muffled voice is barely audible over the din of the Grand Old political machine.

On Route 80 in New Jersey, not far from the Delaware Water Gap, there is a road sign that reads: “Land of Make Believe, This Exit.” One would expect to see the added verbage underneath: “Kate Murray, Supervisor.” For here, in the Town of Hempstead, we are often asked to cast aside all belief, and accept that life in, say, Garden City or Malverne, is naturally better than in Elmont or Baldwin because “It’s a village.” Those in the “special” sanitary districts are to accept – no, “enjoy” – digging deeper into their pockets to pay more than twice as much as those serviced directly by the Town of Hempstead, and to believe that we have any semblance of control over these political fiefdoms. We are to believe Town officials today when they tell us they’re working on the eradication of illegal apartments, on the revitalization of “downtown,” on the elimination of encroaching blight, while wiping from our collective memory the time-worn stories as told to us (in many instances, by the same people) for the past twenty years.

We are asked to believe – and too many of us apparently do – that a year after a 12.8% Town tax increase, the 2006 Town budget will have a 0% increase. Of course, that’s only for the taxes under the Supervisor’s control, not the taxes for all of those “special” districts. Not to worry, though. After all, the special districts – which account, by the way, for half of the Town taxes – are under “local control.” Phew. And we were worried there for a minute!

Yes, there are two Towns of Hempstead. One for those with one hand in the pot and the other in our pockets. And one for the rest of us. One Town of Hempstead where the status quo is as good as it gets, and that other Town of Hempstead, where we know we can do better!

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