Thursday, October 04, 2007

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

Westbury Water District Worst Of The Bunch

If the water looks cloudy, smells funky, and tastes like benzene, maybe, just maybe, there's something wrong.

Ya think?

Another audit, another water district run afoul of any acceptable standard of conduct.

Yesterday, it was Franklin Square and Hicksville. Today, its Westbury.

And tomorrow, well, what's in your water?

Nassau County Comptroller, Howard Weitzman, called it "spending money like water." We call it, the curse of the special taxing districts.

Folks, we can shake our heads, point our fingers, and look to the DA to lock up these bottom-dwelling, tax dollar sucking infidels for a long, long time, but face facts, we elected these commissioners (even if by default), and we elected the very people at town hall and the county seat who gave these political hacks the opportunity to rob us blind.

We opened the window, walked away, and let the intruders into our homes. Now, they're coming out of the faucets and up from the toilets.

Why the surprise?

After all, isn't this what we wanted. "Local control."

Now, we're outraged. Or maybe not. Come Election Day -- whether November 6th, or the next water district election in December -- we shall see whether the wrath and indignation translates into "throw the bums out."

Frankly, our money's on keeping things just the way they are. We seem to like it that way. We "enjoy" paying more, getting less, and being ripped off by petty politicos who watch your wallet as it slips from your fingers.

As for the water, hey, it will eventually find its own level. What's to watch?
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Audit: Westbury water officials bilked district

An audit by Nassau's comptroller has charged that the Westbury Water District board members and superintendent were paid thousands for work without proper documentation in 2004-2005, bought unauthorized life insurance policies and gave themselves unapproved pay hikes.

The allegations, now being investigated by the Nassau district attorney, stem from an audit by Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman. He said the district also accumulated $2.4 million in surplus funds since 2000, but did not use it to reduce taxes, which is not required but, he said, advisable.

"The Westbury Water District is the most mismanaged water district we have audited," Weitzman said. "Our audit found that the district's taxpayers have been overtaxed by millions of dollars with commissioners lining their own pockets."

A spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Eric Philips, said, "These are serious allegations and the DA is launching an immediate investigation."

According to the audit, covering the period 2004 and 2005, the superintendent received $150,000 in life insurance coverage when district rules mandate up to $50,000 per employee. The superintendent, according to the audit, also gave himself pay increases of 12.72 percent and 8.76 percent in 2004 and 20-05 that were not approved by the board. The commissioners, according to the audit, could not account for $290,000 in overtime pay.

The district's superintendent, John Ingram, who last year earned $122,337, said, "The board is committed to address all the items in the report."

Weitzman said Ingram also misused a new $45,000, 2005 GMC Yukon the district provided for him for district business only. Weitzman said the car was used for trips to Ingram's upstate home, a charge the superindent denied.

"I used it to commute to work and for ... district business, including conferences and conventions," Ingram said, adding that he never used it for personal trips to his upstate home.

The audit comes a year after Gov. Eliot Spitzer created a commission to address statewide problems among New York's more than 6,900 special districts.

Weitzman last month released audits that he said revealed water district commissioners in Franklin Square rang up tens of thousands of dollars for attending undocumented meetings, and the district is riddled with nepotism.

Hicksville water commissioners, meanwhile, raked in thousands of taxpayer dollars for going to conferences in Florida and California, Weitzman said.And Long Island's county executives have recently advocated for consolidation of special districts.

"With each of these audits, it becomes clear that the way business is being done no longer works," said Arda Nazerian, a senior adviser to Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

By accumulating more than $2.4 million in surpluses since 2000, Weitzman said that the district could have used the money to lower taxes for residents. The surplus represented more than the district's entire 2005 tax levy of $2.12 million.

"I'm sure taxpayers have better use for their money than paying taxes, only to have them sit in the district's bank accounts," Weitzman said.Weitzman said the district spent a total of $42,299 in 2004 and 2005 to purchase individual life insurance policies for each of its three commissioners at the time, William Olson, Kenneth Jones, and Robert Culbert, and all but one of its 15 employees. None of them could be reached for comment.

One of the commissioners sold the district three of the policies, Weitzman said.

Culbert, who owned a Forest Hills, Queens, insurance brokerage called Culbert & Stenson Inc., sold his Westbury home in March and retired in April during Weitzman's audit, less than a year into his second three-year term. Culbert, who joined the district in 2001, moved to San Diego County.The commissioner who replaced him did not take part in any of the decisions cited in the audit.

Ingram said the insurance policies were purchased through Culbert because the district had trouble getting coverage for certain employees.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.
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Read Joye Brown's, Learning the fine art of squandering public money
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Is the solution a Nassau County Water Authority? Ask the taxpayers in Suffolk County. Check out the Suffolk County Water Authority.
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Read, Assessor: Westbury residents pay high water taxes
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Editorial: Nassau taxpayer money down the drain
October 10, 2007

That dripping noise first heard in Franklin Square, which grew to a steady surge by Hicksville and became a gush by the time it got to Westbury, is the sound of taxpayers' money going down the drain because of wasteful special water districts. The case for consolidation of water, sewage and garbage services in Nassau County gets stronger each time one of these patronage-stuffed fiefdoms is put under the microscope.

Westbury, however, earns the distinction of being the most egregious - so far - after an audit by Comptroller Howard Weitzman found taxpayers were overcharged, with the district collecting a surplus of $2.4 million for its bank account. Weitzman found money unaccounted for and spent improperly. There are no records for $290,000 paid in overtime. Three commissioners filed for 1,101 per diem payments, at $80 a pop, for the 2004 and 2005 audit period. That means, on average, each commissioner claims to have worked 367 days. But the records show there were only 101 official meetings during that period.

One commissioner, also an insurance broker, sold the district policies for three employees.The commissioners were also entitled to health insurance but declined the benefit because they have coverage from other employers. That didn't stop them from pocketing $18,000 for declining the perk, however. And how do you drive a $45,000 SUV 11,000 miles in six months to monitor the water system in a 5-square mile district?

The Westbury audit prompted District Attorney Kathleen Rice to open an investigation. Whether or not the questionable practices result in criminal charges, the evidence of taxpayer abuse is now on the record. The Nassau assessor says a Westbury home valued at $450,000 pays $242.76 in water taxes. The district says the cost is actually closer to $212 annually. But a Uniondale resident with a similar assessment, who gets service from the Town of Hempstead, pays just $31.66 a year. Those numbers should open the floodgates for reform.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

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