Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tyranny By Indifference

The Unwatched Pot Boils Over

No surprises as to what goes on -- right under our noses, and with our money as bankroll -- at Long Island's special taxing districts.

Of course, we all still shake our heads in disbelief when we read about the over-the-top shenanigans of special district commissioners playing fast and loose with the taxpayer dime.

Notwithstanding all of the publicity -- most of it negative -- the special districts have received, especially since 2005, when Harvey Levinson began the crusade to curb abuses while making the public painfully aware of them, the public remains (at least according to the latest Newsday online poll) in the dark about what the special districts do, how they operate, and where our tax dollars are going.

Apathy and indifference among the rank-and-file of John Q. Public -- not voting, not watching, not participating in the process -- has allowed local yokel fiefdoms masquarading as government to run amuck.

In short, we've ceded all control to the few, who take for themselves at our expense.

When we began our work at The Community Alliance, it was with a view to be a quality of life watchdog, marching under the banner of taking back our town in the name of the people who pay the bills.

Some followed. Most yawned and went back to sleep. And the charade passes by.

In today's special district elections -- where most sitting commissioners are running unopposed -- doubtful much will change.

We are, in all likelihood, staying away from the polls -- where we could write our own names in as a protest -- content, or at least resigned -- to the continuing tyranny by indifference.

As Newsday put it in an editorial, "Voting is one way of letting these districts know that someone is watching to see who is naughty or nice."

The choice is yours, folks. Vote -- today, next month, and every time there is an election -- and restore democracy to local government, or sit back and watch that charade along Main Street, as your voice, along with your money, fades away.
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For more on the special taxing districts, check out Residents for Efficient Special Districts and the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness.

For more on today's elections, click HERE and HERE for Newsday's reports.

Also, read Joye Brown's column in Newsday, Why your special district vote is essential on LI.
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LI special districts spend millions of tax dollars
Largely out of public view, agencies collect $473M a year and use some of it for vehicles, insurance and lifetime pensions, records show


Across Long Island, at scores of special districts that collect $473 million a year to pick up trash, distribute water and maintain community parks, critics say officials have all but kept out of the public spotlight, conducting their business as if they were members of a private club.

A Newsday review of records kept by these districts shows that indeed they have spent millions without close public scrutiny. For example, the records show, nearly all district superintendents have a car to take home, plus gas and insurance paid by the district. Some districts have more vehicles than employees. In the Plainview water district, which has 30 vehicles and 20 employees, a white 2005 Dodge Durango is set aside for the exclusive use of the commissioners, who are elected to oversee spending.

Commissioners who run these water, park, garbage and sewer districts work part-time and are paid -- unlike school board members, for example. They receive per-diem payments, typically ranging from $80 to $100, for attending meetings several times a month and doing paperwork, among other things. Many receive lifetime health benefits and pensions. Records show that a number of them have spent thousands of dollars traveling to conferences, often with their spouses, to places like Orlando, San Francisco and Toronto.

These and other issues lie behind an effort that is building steam to shine a brighter spotlight on these districts. Both Nassau County and state auditors have uncovered problems in some districts. On Tuesday, 151 fire, water, park and sewer districts are holding elections across the Island.At stake in the election is nearly $400 million in tax dollars, according to town budgets reviewed by Newsday. (A number of other districts will hold elections next year.) The cost of these special districts adds hundreds of dollars to individual tax bills. But because districts are so small and provide services most people don't think about until there is a problem, many residents, critics say, don't know whether they live in a special district and rarely vote in their elections.

Last week, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi urged residents to vote.

"People need to pay attention to what's going on. All the local governments were set up under the idyllic vision of the New England town hall meeting, which was that your neighbors would run the government," Suozzi said in an interview. "The problem is that your neighbors may be watching the governments, but nobody knows what they're doing."

Where the money goes

Documents reviewed by Newsday raise questions about just what some districts do with their tax dollars. In West Hempstead, for example, officials delayed replacing an aging water tower for 10 years, even after an engineer recommended it and after securing the money for the project in 1994. Before eventually replacing the tower, the district spent $32,000 in 2000 for an artificial waterfall and landscaping on district grounds, district officials confirmed.

"There was one there before, and it looked terrible," said Commissioner Emedio Torre. "When you came into [the] district, we wanted nice grounds."

Bob York, the district's superintendent, said the delay in replacing the water tank occurred because the district completed other capital projects first. But former district Commissioner Michael Uhl, who served from 2000 to 2003, said he was appalled to learn that the district had installed the waterfall and not replaced the water tower, especially since residents had complained about it.

Work to replace the tower was done in 2004 and 2005, York said. That was four years after the landscaping project.

Increased tax burden

Critics say such spending decisions contribute to Long Island's heavy tax burden, and to the perception that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent without adequate public review. The debate has reverberated throughout local government, as civic groups have mobilized and the state has convened a special commission to study these special districts. But district supporters say they provide better service and preserve local control.

"It's a political witch hunt," said John Ingram, superintendent of the Westbury Water and Fire District, which was the subject of a recent critical audit by the Nassau County comptroller. The audit found Westbury to be the "most mismanaged" of the water districts the comptroller has audited.

A Newsday review of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Law shows that while some districts recently have cut costs -- by eliminating cell phones for commissioners, for example -- officials have continued spending on extras that other municipal governments have reduced or eliminated.

Even as both counties have reduced the number of employees allowed to take home county vehicles, the same is not true in some special districts. For example, most special district superintendents have a car for business and commuting. Many managers have them, as well.

Some districts pay for gas and insurance.Michael Petrocelli, general supervisor of Sanitary District No. 6 in West Hempstead, has a 2008 Ford Escape, a hybrid sport utility vehicle, to take home, officials said. His boss, Superintendent Martin Carroll, said supervisors need vehicles to follow garbage trucks and to drop off containers.

Douglas Augenthaler, commissioner of the Port Washington garbage district, which does not provide vehicles to employees, scoffed at the need to follow trucks. "If there's a problem, I hear about it," he said, adding, "I'm not aware of any company out there that pays for people's commutes."

Records show roughly 411 vehicles registered to 21 commissioner-run water districts and two water authorities in Nassau. Combined, they service an area of approximately 180 square miles.
By comparison, the Suffolk County Water Authority has 120 vehicles to cover roughly 900 square miles -- less than a third of the vehicles for five times the area.

Under Suffolk County Water Authority policy, personal use of vehicles is not allowed. Some special districts, like Sanitary District No. 6, bar personal use of cars. Others do not. In the Great Neck Park District, for example, Superintendent Neil Marrin's contract specifically allows him personal use of a sports utility vehicle provided by the district, records show. Officials have said he got that in lieu of a larger raise.

At the Plainview water district, commissioners drive a 2005 Dodge Durango, set aside for their use, about once a month to attend a water officials' dinner meeting, officials said. Commissioner Kevin Langberg said it was justified because they use it only for district business. West Hempstead Water Commissioner John Sparacio, who is running unopposed for re-election Tuesday, said he had a 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe supplied by the district for about a year.

"It was justified because of where I was going and what I was doing," he said. "I don't think it was unique."

Sparacio gave up the car earlier this year, around the time Newsday requested district records. He said he felt he no longer needed it.

Suozzi said such problems concerned him."It doesn't mean that every special district is breaking the rules," he said. "But enough are breaking the rules to make it cause for serious concern."

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

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