Friday, March 30, 2007

A Passover Story - Revisited

Like The Plagues That Beleaguered Generations Past; Like Locust And Pestilence Upon Our Fields; Like The Blood On Our Doorposts And The Slaying Of The First Born; So, Too, Is The Saga Of Local Government -- The Pharohs Of Our Time

Its that time of year again, folks. Yes, those "special" trucks at Sanitary District 1 will be rolling through the streets of the Five Towns next week, picking up the leftover bread during the Passover holiday.

This will mark the third consecutive year that The Community Alliance blog has run our Passover Story -- a new tradition in blogdom much like A Christmas Story has become to post-Thanksgiving television.

Unlike the real story of Passover, which tells of the exodus of the Jews from the land of Egypt and celebrates the freedom of all people from the yoke of enslavement and oppression, this Passover story is yet to have a fortuitous ending.

Indeed, our long march through the desert that is the realm of the special taxing districts has only just begun, with no oasis in sight, and the oppression of the Pharohs -- be they reincarnated in the form of Joe Mondello or Kate Murray, or as the original April Fools joke, Nat Swergold, Counsel to Town of Hempstead Sanitary District 1 and purveyor of fine matzo everywhere -- continues, unabated.

Why, just this week The State Comptroller's Office has released the report "Town Special Districts in New York: Background, Trends, and Issues."

The report analyzes the growth in special districts, details how special districts are structured, and compares the geographic concentration of these districts. The report also contains a county-by-county breakdown of the total number of special districts, the total amount of revenue raised and the impact on taxpayers. Click HERE to access the report.

There are no surprises. Nothing new, really. And guess which county tops the list of Special District revenues and leads the way in Special District burden/property taxes per household? [How'd you guess?]

State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, finds that “the revenue raised for special district services represents nearly one quarter of total revenues raised by towns,” and asks, “should residents be charged at different rates for substantially the same public service based on where they live in a town?”

Of course they should be charged more! Why, they enjoy paying more. And just think of what it costs to add those "special" trucks to pick up the bread at residents' backdoors during Passover. . .
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A Passover Story

Why Is This District's Garbage Collection Different From Any Other District's Garbage Collection?

The following story, first blogged on March 9, 2005, drew so much attention, not to mention critical acclaim, that we simply had to run it again. [In fact, several regular readers specifically requested a reprise.]

We all know the outcome of the Nassau County Comptroller's audit of the infamous Town of Hempstead Sanitary District 1. A $700 steak dinner for 4, and what was characterized as a "total lack of financial control."

Of course, things have changed dramatically in Sanitary District 1 since last year's audit. Well, at least one thing has changed -- THE TAX RATES! Now Sanitary District 1 residents pay even more to "enjoy" their back door trash pick up.

Dont you just love it?

The Bread Of Our Affliction
A Passover Story, As Told By Counsel For Town Of Hempstead Sanitary District 1

An article appeared in a recent edition of the Nassau Herald on the subject of the Nassau County Comptroller's pending audit of several of the Special Districts, including Sanitary District 1. [We are reprinting the article below in its entirety, because you simply cannot make this stuff up!]

Commenting on the services provided by the Sanitary District, Nat Swergold, the chief counsel for Sanitary District 1, said "The district... accommodates the large Orthodox Jewish population in the area by arranging for special trucks during the eight holy days of Passover so bread can be disposed of, since observant Jews do not eat bread during the holiday."

Now, don't get us wrong. We appreciate the great lengths our Sanitary Districts go to in order to serve the public, but "special trucks during... Passover" to collect the bread?

What next? The fire districts placing extra fire trucks in service just in case the horse radish on the gefilte fish burns the roofs of our mouths? Or maybe the water districts will pump in extra water to our homes to help wash down the matzo?

Let's face it, Jews, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated, are not hording bread prior to the holiday. Indeed, most Jews, logic dictates, try to consume the bread they do have in the house before Passover. Assuming any bread remains, most Jews we know, clean the house of bread BEFORE the start of the holiday, and not, certainly, "during the eight holy days" referred to by Mr. Swergold.

Just what are these "special trucks" picking up?Is this the best counsel for the Sanitary District can offer up as a raison d'etre for these Special Taxing Jurisdictions? If so, we've only one word for him: Gevalt!

One has to ask, do we really need three garbage collection days, a recycling day, a bulk pick up day and a yard waste pick up day, keeping in mind that it is Town Highways, not the Sanitary Districts, that sweeps our streets (all too infrequently) and plows the snow. Why - and we’re embarrassed to say this - there are some days when we have absolutely no trash to put out at the curb. Are we eligible for a rebate?

It doesn't take an Einstein - who, by the way, celebrated Passover in a secular vein - to realize that the existence of the Sanitary Districts, and other Special Districts within the township, cannot be substantiated "as is," and the cost to run these districts - special trucks for Passover aside - cannot be justified. At least not with a straight face. Why, in Sanitary District 6, we only have six Commissioners, shy of the ten required for a Minyan!

Clearly, what the Sanitary Districts are trying to put over on the taxpayers amounts to nothing less than unmitigated chutzpah.

According to Andrew Parise, the Mayor of Cedarhurst (which is in Sanitary District 1), "Curbside service wouldn't fly here." You mean to tell me they're picking up garbage at the door? [And here we are, in Sanitary District 6, paying twice the rate for mere curbside service.]

We just have two simple questions: (1) How many Sanitary District Commissioners does it take to change that dim light bulb over the head of the unwittingly inane Nat Swergold, and (2) How long will we, the taxpaying homeowners of the Town of Hempstead, allow ourselves to be played for fools?
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Sanitary district audit planned County comptroller plans to explore consolidation of garbage pickup
By Andrew Coen

In an effort to save county residents money on the taxes they pay for services like garbage pickup and water, Nassau County Comptroller Howard S. Weitzman has announced plans to begin auditing some of the more than 400 special taxing districts throughout the county.

Sanitary District 1, which services the Five Towns and small portions of Lynbrook and Valley Stream, is among the five districts to be audited and considered for consolidation with other areas.

Other districts that will undergo audits include Sanitary District 2, which encompasses Baldwin, South Hempstead and Roosevelt; District 6, which takes in Elmont, North Valley Stream, Franklin Square, West Hempstead and Lakeview; the Port Washington Garbage District in the Town of North Hempstead, and the Syosset Sanitary District in the Town of Oyster Bay.

The districts were selected for audits based on criteria such as high tax rates, large accumulated surpluses and high tax increases in 2004-05, the comptroller said.According to Weitzman, along with residents paying village, town and county taxes, there are nearly 400 sanitation and water districts with 1,600 different tax rates, amounting to a "hidden government" that adds to the already heavy tax burden. Weitzman said he would like to explore the feasibility of town governments' consolidating some of the special districts to save taxpayers money and operate them with greater efficiency."

The growth of these special districts reflects the haphazard development of Nassau County in the last century, from a collection of unassociated towns, villages and hamlets," said Weitzman.

"Some of [these districts] may be necessary and some may be well-run, but the persistence of so many separate governmental authorities, with their own employees and tax rates, tends to hide the true cost of local government and contributes to our high local tax burden."

Nat Swergold, the chief counsel for Sanitary District 1, said he does not see his district meeting any of Weitzman's criteria for an audit, since, Swergold said, the district does not have a high surplus, has one of the lowest tax rates in the state and has not had any hefty tax increases. "We are probably a target for this audit because we are the largest [sanitary district]," said Swergold, adding that Sanitary District 1 services more than 30,000 households.

According to Swergold, last year's tax rate for single-family residences in District 1 was $12.58 per $100 of the assessed value of a home, which is half the rate of District 2 ($24.62 per $100) and District 6 ($26.05 per $100).

"[District 1's] tax rates are much lower than the rest of the districts," said Cedarhurst Mayor Andrew Parise. "I don't know who would provide better service than we get here."

Swergold said that while he welcomes an investigation into his district, because it is well run, he does not think the audit is necessary, since the state comptroller audits the district periodically. He added that he could not envision any sort of consolidation of the areas to save money, since each sanitation district has different needs. "I think [consolidation] is not a good idea, because each area and each district is unique," said Swergold, who has been the attorney for District 1 since 1972. "There is no way we could keep these services if there were consolidation."

Swergold said that District 1 is unique compared with other sanitary districts, in part because its workers pick up trash in the rear of residents' homes, which means residents do not have to place garbage curbside unless they are disposing of heavy items. The district operates its own recycling plant in North Lawrence and, as a result, has the highest recycling rate of any sanitary district in the state, according to Swergold. The district also accommodates the large Orthodox Jewish population in the area by arranging for special trucks during the eight holy days of Passover so bread can be disposed of, since observant Jews do not eat bread during the holiday.

"Curbside service wouldn't fly here," Parise said of the unique services offered to residents in District 1.

According to Weitzman, the goal of the audits is to provide a better understanding of the districts'expenditures, hiring and procurements practices and the efficiency of their operations. He said that additional audits of other special districts in the county would be considered depending on how the initial examination goes.The comptroller's decision to initiate audits follows a January report by County Assessor Harvey Levinson that showed that many special taxing jurisdictions, like garbage and water districts, spend millions of dollars each year with little observation by the public. The report prompted Levinson to call on the comptroller to audit those districts in the county.

"Homeowners who pay widely different tax rates for the same services within a town are entitled to know how their ever-increasing tax dollars are spent," said Levinson. "I am confident that Comptroller Weitzman's independent examination of sanitation districts operating within the towns will lead to sensible cost-cutting measures, consolidation or possibly even the elimination of these unnecessary invisible governments."

The planned audits have the support of some top state officials, including Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "In beginning these audits, Comptroller Weitzman is addressing the need for greater public oversight of these taxing districts," said Hevesi. A 2002 audit of some of these special districts by then state Comptroller Carl McCall found that several districts kept unreasonably high reserve balances.

Weitzman's audits will examine administrative and operating expenses and the appropriateness of fund balances.Comments about this story? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 210.
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And the story continues. The NYS Comptroller's audit of Sanitary District 1 found major transgressions (still denied by Nat Swergold & Company), and the Nassau County District Attorney's office is conducting it's own investigation (begun under Denis Dillon) to see if any Sanitary District 1 Commissioner, employee, or contract worker engaged in criminal conduct.

Meanwhile, those observing Passover who would like to have a truck sent to their homes to pick up bread may call Sanitary District 1 at 516-239-5600. Tell them The Community Alliance sent you! [Passover observers residing outside Town of Hempstead Sanitary District 1 can call 1-800-I-GOT-BREAD for pick-up. Ask for Kate.]

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Property Tax "Relief" In Sight For Nassau Homeowners?

Ah, We Dont Think So!

News12 Long Island reports that a property tax "freeze" is in the works for Nassau County, with the County Legislature's minority leader, Peter Schmitt, calling for a 5-year "freeze," and the Chairman of the County Board of Assessors, Harvey Levinson, saying that, at most, the County can afford a 2-year "freeze."

Click HERE to see report, Tax relief may be in sight for Nassau homeowners.

We don't have our Webster's at hand, but the last time we looked, "relief" wasn't defined as a "freeze."

In fact, you offer relief from sky-high property taxes by lowering them -- or at least shifting the burden to non-regressive taxes -- and not by holding the taxpayers in the unenviable position in which they now find themselves -- heads under water and drowning fast.

If I'm the poor bloak with a brain tumor that's causing every bodily function to shut down, I need relief in the form of removing --or shrinking -- that tumor, not "freezing" it in place, hoping that my vital signs miraculously stabilize, as a ventilator breathes for me, a dialysis machine filters the poisons out of my blood, and I struggle to survive the night.

Telling that guy in a vegetative state, "hey, it won't get any worse?" is little solace. How about, "we're going to make you better, and here's the medicine you need to get well!"

Medicine? All we get are platitudes and placebos!

According to News12, Schmitt says he wants to put an end to stealth taxes and give residents a chance to catch their breath.

"Stealth taxes?" That wouldn't be code for special taxing districts, would it Pete?

"A chance to catch our breath?" Great! Of course, it would help if you would get that pillow off of our faces.

Yes, Nassau County residents are in dire need of property tax relief. And we spell that, R-E-L-I-E-F, not F-R-E-E-Z-E.

Eliminate, consolidate, economize and downsize. Those are the starters.

More bang for the buck and fewer hands in our pockets.

We need to attack the invasive property tax virus at its very core, not merely treat the symptoms with a shot of novacaine.

And when is a freeze not a freeze?

Even Peter Schmitt, with apparent limited attention span and but nominal intellectual capacity, has to understand that a "freeze" in the assessment does not necessarily equal a "freeze" in tax rates -- rates established by fire districts, water districts, sanitary districts, school districts, and so on down the line.

Do the simple math: A freeze in assessment + an increase in the tax rate = HIGHER PROPERTY TAXES.

Maybe we're missing something. Then again, maybe not.

All the freezes in all the towns and all the counties throughout the State won't amount to a hill of beans -- or to so much as an extra dollar in the pockets of Nassau's homeowners.

It is, as Peter Schmitt called Tom Suozzi's move to take County cars away from certain County employees, nothing more than window-dressing!

In Albany, They Still Play 'Let's Make A Deal'

School Aid Restored; Health Care Cuts Curtailed; April 1st To Bring On-Time Budget; Details Still Hammered Out Behind Closed Doors By Three Men In A Room

Word from Albany has it that Long Island's school districts will continue to get their historical -- if not equitable and sufficient -- share of the State Aid pie, and the cuts to Medicaid reimbursement and health care threatened by the Governor won't nearly be as harsh as anticipated.

Indeed, we may have a Constitutionally-mandated April 1st budget in place after all, with the Legislature restoring, as it has done in years past, some $1 billion to the Governor's proposed budget.

So here we are. Day 87, and what has really changed in Albany?

A few new faces, here and there. A couple of in-your-face shouting matches. A little steamrolling along State Street. Not very much at all, truth be told.

For all the talk of reform, of transparency, of open government, we basically have fallen back to the very status quo that Albany has been all too comfortable with for the last 12 years.

Yes, the budget will be on-time for only the third time in twenty-three years. But query as to whether a late budget is better than a bad budget?

Guaranteed that, in the months ahead, we'll be moaning about the property tax, questioning this year's crop of member item grants, and watching our mailboxes for those thirty-two cent rebate checks.

Albany, but a glimmer in the eyes of lawmakers from its dysfunction of yesteryear, seems to rest, if uneasily, on a twist in the old baseball adage, "wait 'til next year."

Wait 'til next year for real reform. Wait 'til next year for real property tax relief. Wait 'til next year for those three men in that room to open the door and let in other voices, not to mention the cleansing light of day.

Unfortunately, most New Yorkers can no longer afford to wait. And, evidently, the more things change in Albany, the more they stay the same!
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'Steamroller' in Albany Learns How to Concede
By Michael Cooper and Danny Hakim

ALBANY, March 28 — Gov. Eliot Spitzer brought a hard-charging style to Albany, taking on adversaries personally and directly, even lambasting lawmakers in their home districts. But the State Legislature knows how to play hardball too, and the rookie governor is having to meet them halfway on his first budget.

So after Governor Spitzer waged a lonely, bruising political battle to try to reduce Medicaid costs — and was attacked in millions of dollars of television ads paid for by the health care union and a hospitals association — he ended up agreeing to restore many proposed cuts as part of the budget deal he is hammering out.

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Spitzer claimed a victory of sorts, saying that the agreements he and legislative leaders had reached so far had given him much of what he wanted. But he acknowledged that he had had to alter many of his key proposals to win the support of lawmakers.

“The overall level of spending, obviously, it is a bit higher than I had initially wanted,” Governor Spitzer said. “As I’ve said to a number of you over the course of today, you do not turn a battleship inside a bathtub. It takes a bit more than one budget cycle to get us down to the spending levels we want.”

Talks are still under way as the governor and the Legislature struggle to meet the April 1 budget dealine. But both sides say the Legislature has succeeded in increasing Mr. Spitzer’s proposed budget by nearly $1 billion — about the amount it usually adds to a governor’s budget. And now lawmakers in both parties are questioning privately whether the governor’s alpha-dog style has been all that effective.

State Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader, who led the main opposition to the governor’s budget and sometimes found himself at the business end of the governor’s public tongue-lashings, seemed pleased.

“You know, I’ve stated before and others have stated, when you want to talk about numbers — depends on how you count,” Mr. Bruno said at a hearing, to much laughter. “You understand that, I understand that, this governor’s learned it quickly.”

The counting was still not done on Wednesday night. While there were many areas still to be agreed on, the agreements drove total spending for next year up to more than $121.6 billion — making it the ninth-largest increase of state-financed spending in the last 40 years, according to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative policy group.

Civic groups — which have been largely supportive of Governor Spitzer so far — were decidedly cool to the few details that emerged from the budget negotiations. The Citizens Budget Commission, which praised many of the governor’s proposals, called the agreed-on Medicaid cuts “modest,” and said the price for achieving them was high in terms of increased spending overall.

Numerous civic groups complained about the secrecy of the budget talks, saying that it looked as if, in the rush to make the April 1 deadline, the governor would have to waive the constitutional requirement that gives lawmakers three days to study laws before voting on them.

There were many contentious issues left to be resolved — any one of which could derail the chances of passing a budget by Sunday. These included whether to allow more charter schools in the state, whether to add a nickel deposit to cans and bottles of non-carbonated beverages, whether to give a tax break to people who send their children to private and parochial schools, and whether to give pay raises to judges.

But in a number of areas, Mr. Spitzer argued that the agreements he won would yield dividends in the future, even if they did not look significant at first.

His plan to create a new school spending formula to send more money to New York City and other high-needs districts survived, with some significant changes. But the Republican-led State Senate got him to double the amount of operating aid being sent to Long Island’s school districts, and to increase aid to other wealthy districts.

This allows the governor to boast that he has boiled the state’s many arcane formulas down to one understandable, predictable formula, and that he has broken the historic system of dividing school aid by shares — a system that always gave New York City close to 39 percent of new school aid and Long Island between 12 and 13 percent.

Senate Republicans lost their fight to change the new formula to enshrine the current share system, but were nonetheless able to win an agreement to add $420 million outside the formula to make sure Long Island gets its traditional share next year.

“In terms of operating aid, what we call above the line, I believe our share will be at least what it was in the past” said Senator Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican. “Maybe a little more.”

Still, even if shares survive in some form next year, analysts argue that the new formula is significant. “I think if you succeed in changing the formula through the statute — putting in place a new aid formula that actually breaks shares — that is significant,” said Edmund J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center.

And when it came to the fight over health care spending — the biggest public battle of the budget — the governor said that he was restoring about $350 million out of his $1.3 billion in proposed cuts. Details were sketchy, but people with knowledge of the deal said the largest components involved restoring most of an annual inflation adjustment to Medicaid payments made to hospitals and nursing homes, and allowing the expiration of a tax on hospitals that he had proposed extending.

During the budget battle, the leaders of two powerful health care groups, 1199 United Healthcare Workers East and the Greater New York Hospital Association, were singled out for criticism by Governor Spitzer in front of hundreds of business and civic leaders at a power breakfast early this month. On Wednesday they gleefully sent out a news release claiming that the governor’s concessions would amount to the restoration of nearly 70 percent of his proposed cuts to hospitals and nursing homes.

But Mr. Spitzer said that “their 70 percent is just way off.”

“The hospital reductions are over 50 percent of what we had initially proposed, over 50 percent, and that is an important number,” Mr. Spitzer said.

But the governor won changes to how health care spending is distributed that he argues will yield benefits in time, and he got the State Senate to agree to pass a False Claims Act that he says will help Albany significantly recoup losses from Medicaid fraud.

The governor agreed to the Senate’s demand that property tax relief be sent directly to homeowners in the form of rebate checks. And while he held firm to his demand that it be focused on the middle class, he agreed to extend the relief to more high earners at the request of the Senate.

In the end Mr. Spitzer, who referred to himself earlier this year as a “steamroller,” did not flatten out everything in his path. He gave ground in some areas and won ground in others.

“There’s no steam in the roller,” State Senator Martin J. Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said.

“You can’t do it on your own. I think he’s learning that.”

Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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Click HERE to read the Newsday story, Negotiations on Budget Deal

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Its Taxing Just Thinking About Special Districts

Imagine What Would Happen If We Actually Moved To Consolidate/Eliminate Them

Take a look at your 2006 Statement of Taxes/General Levy. By God, its enough to make an exorcist's head spin!

Sure, you've got your special taxing jurisdictions that everyone's been complaining about -- fire districts, water districts, sanitary districts. Those are the big "nuts" -- or so you thought.

Take a closer look.

In the unincorporated area of the Town of Hempstead served by Sanitary District 6, for instance, the total 2006 tax levy for that district was $21,587,424.49.

The total tax levy for the Town Refuse Disposal District -- paid by SD6 residents in addition to the SD6 levy -- was more than double the SD6 levy, topping $46 million.

If you live within garbage can throwing range of SD6, you're not only paying four times the going rate for collection, you're paying an additional $46 mil for the Town of Hempstead to dispose of what SD6 has collected.

That's some expensive trash you've got!

But that's not all.

Look at your tax bill again.

The Town Park District is costing taxpayers $32.8 million. Town Lighting District, $8.7 million. Town Parking District, a mere $43,000 -- no wonder you can't find a parking space!

And let's not forget the County Sewage Disposal District coming in at $39.2 mil.

Considering that all of these districts have, in one incarnation or another, their own strata of governance (be they designated as "commissioners" or otherwise), as well as their own rules of doing business (or not), the true cost to the taxpayer -- above and beyong what you see on your tax statement -- is staggering.

Do we really need a seperate Lighting District within the township, or a seperate Parking District in each unincorporated hamlet?

Over the decades, these special taxing districts have taken on lives of their own (beyond the "control" of even the governmental entities under whose name they operate and levy taxes), and, like cancer cells, have found their pervasive way into almost every aspect of our communal lives.

With limited oversight by Town, County and State, few internal constraints, and little if any effective input from the folks who foot the bills (that would be us), the special taxing districts have evolved into tax levy-sustaining fiefdoms, no longer serving the greater good, but merely perpetuating a system where the few serve themselves at the taxpayers' expense.

And so, the panels and commissions convene and opine -- all reaching similar conclusions, more or less: that most of the operations of the so-called special districts can and should be consolidated, and that many can and should be eliminated outright.

The potential savings to the taxpayers like the number of customers served by McDonalds -- billions and billions!

If only we could get past the "can and should" and reach the "are being and have been!"

Of course, there is a downside to consolidating and eliminating the special taxing districts. Imagine the hundreds if not thousands of special district workers -- those who thank the party for their patronage -- who would join the ranks of Long Island's unemployed.

Not to worry. We're confident that no show jobs with attendant six-figure salaries can be found for the disposed and the displaced at the County Seat or in Town Hall.
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LI's 'special' districts draw scrutiny
By Michaek Rothfeld

Nassau and Suffolk counties account for half of all revenue collected in New York State by special districts -- the small and relatively unknown government entities that operate in local towns with little oversight -- a new report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has found.

In Nassau, the $400 million collected by special districts -- for sanitation, lighting, water and other services -- represented 31 percent of the $1.3 billion statewide total in 2004, the year DiNapoli studied. The $240 million collected in Suffolk was 19 percent of the total that year.

In addition, tax-weary homeowners in Nassau paid an average of $946 for special districts, the most in the state in 2004 and more than 31/2 times the $257 average. Suffolk homeowners paid $512.

Nassau also had the distinction of being home to 15 percent of the state's garbage districts. And those 24 districts collected $181.1 million a year, 14 percent of all special district revenue in New York, the report said.

Special districts first began sprouting up around 1930 and have become more common over the last 50 years as suburban and rural areas have grown. They were put into place to provide services and bill taxpayers within small geographic areas.

But the districts, which now number 6,927, have become so ubiquitous and overlapping -- and often, secretive -- that they are coming under intense scrutiny. DiNapoli cited media reports about wasteful spending, such as a Newsday series in 2005 about spending practices in Long Island fire districts.

"While special districts give towns the flexibility they need to provide critical services to residents, they don't always operate as efficiently and equitably for all taxpayers," DiNapoli said.

In Nassau, nearly 52 percent of all town revenue is collected in special districts, adding hundreds of dollars to tax bills. In some cases, districts are independent of towns and have their own commissioners. In most cases, DiNapoli said, they are simply units of town government which collect revenue, either through property taxes or user fees, and operate on their own for a specific purpose. The cost of government has become a hot-button political issue. DiNapoli said New York has the third highest property taxes in the nation.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer has created a Commission on Local Government Efficiency to study consolidation. Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi is examining a potential consolidation of local taxing authorities. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is looking at sharing resources among school districts. And Nassau Comptroller Howard Weitzman has audited several special districts and highlighted poor accounting and spending practices.

"It is a much bigger problem here on Long Island than it is in the rest of the state," Suozzi said.

"This time next year, I'll have a solid, tangible result regarding what should be consolidated and how much money it will save."

DiNapoli, without taking a position on the issue, said the state could pass legislation requiring towns to undertake a consolidation study if, for instance, 65 percent of its population lived in an area serviced by more than one district with the same purpose.

Long Island is definitely at the epicenter of special districts in terms of revenue, but in quantity, the upstate counties of Erie, Onondaga and Monroe contain 34 percent of all state special districts, DiNapoli said. Suffolk has 200 and Nassau has 140 -- a combined 5 percent of the state total.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.
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Locally, Long Islanders can check out -- and become actively involved with -- a homegrown, grassroots effort to gain much needed control over the special taxing districts -- Residents for Efficient Special Districts. [Yes, a misnomer, as in, "the only efficient special district is an eliminated special district!"]

For more information on RESD, fill out and submit their online form, or send an e-mail to

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Greening Of Suburbia's "Grayfields"

Today's "Grayfields" Are Tomorrow's "Brownfields;" Planners Look For New Ways To Keep Old Suburbs Green

The suburbs of Buffalo, New York are not unlike suburban Long Island -- sprawl, an aging infrastructure, a built-out economy, and decades of reliance upon haphazard development and rampant growth that was anything but "smart."

Now, planners, urbanisists, and the new suburbanists, are reconfiguring the vehicle-driven idea of suburbia, hoping to change that strip mall mentality into a community-centric, pedestrian-friendly state of mind.

Planners on Long Island can -- and should -- take a page from what's on the drawing board in the suburbs of Buffalo.

The rest of us can read all about it, and hope that county and local governments here on Long Island not only take notice, but call for action on the homefront, turning grayfields into greenfields before they decay into brownfields.

We can't say they have the problem licked in the suburbs of Buffalo, or that they even have a handle on it, but at least they're realizing that they've got a problem.

To us, that's the first step in the revitalization process -- realizing we have a problem.

The upstate suburbs have a long way to go, to be sure. As for Long Island's woes, until local government accepts that the decline of grayfields into brownfields cannot be halted by brick pavers and Victorian-style street lamps -- or by building municipal parking fields that lay empty, the surrounding business districts in ruins -- the very problems suburban planners probe here will persist.
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Aging retail outlets present a dilemma; Developers struggle to give stores new life

Sandra Tan
News Staff Reporter

They are a suburban omnipresence: once-vibrant shopping centers and plazas that now litter the landscape.

There are big ones: Town Hall Plaza in Hamburg. Garden Village Plaza in Cheektowaga. The Lockport Mall. Sheridan-Delaware Plaza in the Town of Tonawanda, and Sheridan Plaza in Amherst.

There are small ones, built in the '50s and '60s. Their careworn storefront rows, low-rent tenants and vacancies depress the view along well-traveled streets.

These are "grayfields" -- older, underperforming retail areas surrounded by empty, faded parking lots.

By definition, grayfields are dying places, but local officials and developers are fighting to bring them back to life. Some are meeting with success, but others have a long way to go before their tired retail districts find new purpose.

"The problem the city has been dealing with for years has clearly arrived in the suburbs," said Amherst Planning Director Eric W. Gillert. "So now when we talk about we're all in this together, we're not kidding."

Buffalo has many struggling retail areas, but the phenomenon of aging strip plazas is predominantly a suburban problem.

Sheridan Drive is a perfect example.

The long retail corridor runs through Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda. And large chunks of it -- especially closer to Niagara Falls Boulevard -- are hard on the eyes.

Of roughly 20 older strip plazas that line that stretch of Sheridan, most appear outdated or run-down, and nearly half contain vacant storefronts.

"It's like a diseased mall," said Eric Recoon, vice president of leasing for Benderson Development Co.

Since Sheridan is such a heavily traveled thoroughfare, many of the plazas are at least partly occupied but often filled with low- rent tenants.

"Sheridan is a poster child for what can happen as places age," said Kate Foster, director of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.

This retail strip is like many others scattered throughout the suburbs.

Many were built 50 years ago, following the suburban explosion after World War II. Since that time, larger and more attractive plazas and malls have robbed older plazas of their best tenants.
In addition, as big-box department stores have folded over the years -- including many on Sheridan Drive -- they've left behind giant, unusable spaces, killing surrounding retailers that relied on the anchor's traffic.

"When people think about grayfields, they're thinking about places that are becoming obsolete," Foster said.

Efforts to redevelop grayfields in Western New York have seen mixed results. Benchmark Group has seen noteworthy success, introducing a Buffalo Athletic Center for Women in the old Colvin- Eggert Plaza and building new boutique-style retail in the old Sheridan-Delaware Plaza, both in the Town of Tonawanda.

The development group also has transformed the old Clarence Mall after purchasing it from an out-of-state partnership. Now called The Shops at Main/Transit, the once-tired plaza with a former Ames and Burlington Coat Factory is once again filled with major retailers.

Benchmark even managed to retrofit the existing Burlington building, which now houses a Bed Bath and Beyond.

"We felt it was a great location, with great demographics surrounding it," said Executive Vice President Martin DelleBovi, director of development. "It just needed an influx of creative money and effort to bring it up to current times."

DelleBovi said redeveloping an old plaza is challenging because it often involves relocating or working around existing tenants. But those tenants provide the developer with revenue during renovations, and town governments happily support such projects.

"Municipalities tend to be very cooperative because they want to see that property turned around," he said. "It's a much easier sell to develop an existing piece of property than to build on vacant land."

Except when it comes to Wal-Mart.

Benderson Development has courted the nation's largest retailer to serve as the revitalizing anchor for the ailing Brierwood Plaza in Hamburg and Sheridan Plaza in Amherst. Wal-Mart also is seeking to take over the aging Lockport Mall.

Each case has met with some organized opposition, though others are eager for the retail giant to fill in the deteriorating commercial property.

Benderson has lured other major retailers as well. It recently brought in a Lowe's to Eastview
Plaza at Transit and Maple roads in Amherst and is renovating the plaza's adjacent retail space, Recoon said.

It is harder for smaller strip plaza owners to reinvent themselves.

Many are owned by limited-liability partners or even a plaza occupant; they don't have the money or credit needed for a large- scale renovation, said Linda Stang, president of Property Management Associates, which handles some distressed properties.

At the town level, promoting the renewal of tired shopping centers requires a coordinated and multifaceted approach.

This year, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga have joined forces with Buffalo to embrace a regional strategy for combating vacant properties called "Blueprint Buffalo."

Among its four key recommendations was to find a way to redevelop grayfield spaces.

The report recommends changes in policy, incentives and zoning requirements.

Amherst, which probably has the greatest concentration of strip plazas, has taken a two-pronged approach: It has changed its zoning requirements and offered tax breaks to property owners who fix up older buildings in lagging commercial areas.

"It's still more expensive to rehab a property than to build from scratch, and that's why we're trying to level the playing field," said Colleen DiPirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Parts of Eggertsville, Snyder, Harlem-Kensington and Williamsville have been designated "enhancement zones" or redevelopment zones.

The Amherst Industrial Development Agency has approved 30 projects in these zones since 2000, but only three involved retail buildings, said James Allen, executive director of the Amherst IDA. And only one involved a strip mall -- University Plaza, which received a major face-lift in 2000.

Gillert said, "We haven't had a lot of success with strip plazas, but that's because the zoning ordinance hadn't been changed."

In January, the Town Board adopted new zoning laws that make it possible for owners of older properties to redevelop them as "mixed- use" buildings that offer a mixture of retail, office and residential space and are more pedestrian friendly.

The Planning Department is still working on where the mixed-use zoning will apply.

© 2007 Buffalo News

Friday, March 23, 2007

More Special Taxing Districts, PLEASE!

Blue Ribbon Commission Finds Buried Blueprints

The Governor wants to put the check on the special districts -- calls for a "commission."

The County Exec says we have too many layers of local government -- calls for funding of a "blueprint."

The Nassau County Comptroller and the Nassau County Assessor both say that the hundreds of special taxing districts are bleeding Long Islanders dry. [We reached them both for comment as they were driving Alan Hevesi home in their County cars.]

A study -- you know, the kind that keeps the Long Island Index in business -- shows we pay more but get less.

We say, bolderdash!

We're going about this all wrong, folks.

There's not a darn thing wrong with special districts but for the fact that we don't have enough of them.

Yes, you heard us correctly. We need MORE SPECIAL TAXING DISTRICTS.

In fact, according to the combined Blight/Special District study commissioned by The Community Alliance, as chaired by Hempstead Town Councilman Tony "they enjoy paying more" Santino, the only practical way to solve the myriad problems created by the special districts is to create a special district for every Long Island taxpayer.

Think about it.

Can't afford health insurance or life insurance? No problem. We set up a Special "illegal basement apartment" District, "elect" you as Commissioner, and, voila, you've got lifetime coverage. [In fact, we'll even cover you after you die!]

Haven't had a vacation in years? No problem.

You are annointed Commissioner of the Special "roll the dice" District, and off you go for two weeks in Vegas?

Car troubles? No problem.

As Commissioner of the Special "we need a race car for training purposes" District [and the Special "take your county car home over the weekend" District], you'll have cars on call 24/7. [Yes, you can wear the commissioner's hat in more than one district. The more the merrier! In fact, in the Town of Hempstead, its mandatory.]

Can't afford the house you live in? No problem.

Simply send your resume -- or voter registration card, if you are a Republican -- to Hempstead Town Supervisor, Kate Murray, and you can vie for the venerable position of Building Commissioner. [No, that's not a special district, but its still good work if you can get it!]

You see, as things stand now, only the few and the connected benefit from the hundreds of special taxing districts we have on Long Island.

True, some will be benefiting while doing time at Sing Sing or Green Haven, but that's a small price to pay for a lifetime of fleecing the taxpayers.

If only each of us had a special district to call our own, complete with pension credits and the occasional steak dinner at Mortons, who would we be to complain?

Special districts. If you can't eliminate 'em or consolidate 'em, get one of your very own!

Yes Virginia, There IS Too Much Local Government On Long Island

Yet Another Study Concludes, LIers Pay More, Get Less


A new study, entitled A Tale of Two Suburbs, conducted by the Center for Government Research, finds that Long Islanders believe we have too much local government [Duh! Ya think?], and we aren't getting the bang for the buck that the folks in fire districts, water districts, sanitary districts (to name a few) tell us we're getting.

In fact, we're paying way too much, and getting far too little.

When the study, prepared by Long Island Index, compares Nassau and Suffolk to counties in Northern Virginia, the difference between what is paid and what taxpayers get becomes most glaring.

Nothing most of us don't already know.

Indeed, this should be the kind of report that hammers the final nails into the coffins of the hundreds of special taxing districts that have a stranglehold on Long Island's taxpayers.

Unfortunately, where we should be demanding consolidation and elimination, all we are likely to see, at least any time in the near future, are more studies, surveys, reports, commissions, and blueprints.
- - -
Study: LI getting short-end on services
By Reid J. Epstein

The hundreds of units of local government on Long Island lead directly to higher taxes, but not better services, according to a study being released Thursday by the Long Island Index.

The study, which examined government services and attitudes toward government on Long Island and in two Northern Virginia counties, found Long Islanders pay more than 50 percent more in property taxes, yet are far less satisfied with their local public officials than people in suburban Northern Virginia.

The reason, according to the study, lies in Long Island's 439 units of local government, school districts and special districts. In Fairfax and Loudoun counties -- Washington, D.C., suburbs with about half Long Island's population -- there are 17 such districts.

"People have to stand up and say ... 'You don't get better service,'" said Charles Zettek, of the Center for Government Research, which did the study.

The two Northern Virginia counties -- Fairfax and Loudoun -- are similar to Long Island in size, cost of living and status as a commuter region adjacent to a major East Coast city. But unlike Long Island, where open space is scarce, Northern Virginia is a rapidly expanding region where new home construction continues at a rapid pace.Like Long Island, Northern Virginia is affluent and suburban. But while Long Island evolved as a hodgepodge of local governments, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties operate with centralized control of local government, schools and fire departments.

For instance, while there are 127 school districts for Long Island's 2.8 million people, the two Northern Virginia counties, with 1.3 million people, have but three -- one run by each county and one in the city of Falls Church. Long Island school districts employ more administrative staff per student and spend about 70 percent more per student for transportation.

Long Island school districts even spend more per student on construction costs, even though the Virginia districts are in the midst of a building boom that will see Loudoun County break ground on six new schools within a year, the study found. It also found Long Island schools pay far more in teacher salaries than their Virginia counterparts.

The Virginia counties each have their own centralized professional fire department. Accordingly, there are only 58 fire stations in the two counties, compared with 381 on Long Island, an area 1.3 times larger. Even with Long Island's largely volunteer fire departments, residents pay more for equipment and operating costs for fire service than Virginia counterparts. Excluding personnel, Long Islanders pay more than twice as much.

Long Islanders have historically resisted consolidation of taxing districts, preferring instead to maintain smaller units that they believe are more responsive to local needs. However, the survey found that Northern Virginians are far more satisfied with their schools and local government than are Long Islanders.

On Long Island, 36 percent of people feel it's "very or somewhat easy to get help from an elected official." In Northern Virginia, 45 percent of people felt that way.

More than 70 percent of Northern Virginians rated the value they get from property taxes as excellent, compared with fewer than 50 percent of Long Islanders.

Thomas Suozzi and Steve Levy, the Nassau and Suffolk county executives, both said the study validates their efforts to eliminate some of the more than 400 governmental districts on Long Island.

"If you talk to anyone at a family barbecue or at lunch, they're going to say that common-sensically, we have too many governments," Suozzi said. "The problem is, it's very complex to figure out how to unravel it."

Suozzi has made reducing the layers of government in Nassau a signature issue and is pushing for a $750,000 study of how to do so.

Levy said the region should take small steps toward consolidating functions first, rather than eliminating districts, a process he said would prove very difficult politically.

"It's not going to be realistic to expect that districts will consolidate," Levy said. "But we can consolidate functions between districts. Security, buildings and grounds, borrowing, health insurance, transportation, those are things that can be shared."

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

America's Largest Township Out Of Control

Unincorporated Areas of Hempstead Town Left Hanging Over Abyss of Neglect

On Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont, virtually in the shadow of Belmont Raceway, what remains -- call it "ruins," if you will -- of the old ARGO movie theater.

In its heyday in the 1950s, the Argo, with its ornate balcony, outside box office, and high-ceilinged lobby, was the pride of the community.

Today, having been shuttered for what seems like, well, decades (how apt that the theater was operated by the Century chain), the Argo is but a blighted shell of its former self.

The de-evolution from attractive movie palace to a Discount Department Store, its incarnations including a rather seedy Club Malibu and a storefront Baptist church, the former Argo now stands as a testament to the Town of Hempstead's indifference, a brownfield-in-residence that resonates with the sentiment of community that the Town has simply lost -- or given up -- control.

A lack of control is certainly nothing new in Hempstead Town. Indeed, the rant on this blog alone bespeaks a township spiraling out of control, from the top offices at Town Hall (where the Supervisor abrogates control to those who lack self-control), to the garbage heaps of the Town's Sanitary Districts (over which the Supervisor avers she has no control).

The Supervisor of Hempstead Town will tell you, in mailings by the dozen, that the Town has no control over tax assessment, no control over special taxing jurisdictions (even those that operate under title and seal of the great Town of Hempstead), no control over the Town's ex-Building Commish (who lives on the Supervisor's very own Levittown street), no control over the revitalization and redevelopment of the business and commercial districts that subsist in the Town's unincorporated areas west of, say, Wantagh.

All right. On the last score, the Supervisor will tell you that she has control -- that the Town is moving "with all deliberate speed" (as in, when snails win the Indy 500) to renew, refurbish, rehab, and refresh.

And yet, save the convenient placement of a few Victorian-style street lamps, ornate benches upon which we may rest our weary limbs amidst the rubble, faded brick pavers, and dying, uncared for plantings, the Town of Hempstead has little to show on the community front for its "efforts" to restore suburbia.

Yes, we have seen the "new Elmont," in artists' renderings handed down from Supervisor to Supervisor. We have heard the plans for a "sustainable" Elmont, but have managed only to sustain a steady decline along Elmont's Main Streets. [Place this one under the heading of "that vision thing."]

There has been talk -- and lots of it over the years -- about reopening the Argo as a movie theater. Just talk.

The latest out of Hempstead Town Hall is the prospect of a Condemnation Proceeding -- a long, drawn out process that may ultimately lead to the demolition of the Argo's skeleton -- making way, perhaps, for a supermarket, or even a Discount Department Store.

If Elmont can take any solace in Hempstead Town's seemingly unexhaustible supply of "no control," it is that we are not alone on the Town's darkened radar screen.

Just to the east, in the unincorporated hamlet of West Hempstead, the Town has been closing a crime-ridden no-tell hotel -- the Courtesy -- for more than a decade. We'll "condemn" blighted properties -- in that eternity which passes ever so slowly as "Town Time" -- but not the likes of those who would condemn entire communities to suffer the indignities of a painful and "sustained" absence of control.

They're studying "bilght" in Baldwin [the Town is most studious], and, no doubt, we'll eventually see those Victorian-style street lamps sprouting along Grand Avenue.

True, every once in a long while, the sun does shine through from Hempstead Town, but even then, its typically paving blight -- as in Oceanside -- to put up a parking lot (cue the Victorian-style lampposts).

Still, it remains mostly cloudy for far too many who reside in the township's unincorporated areas, where "control" cedes daily to chaos, and, much like the Town's Levy Preserve, hopes of recapturing the glory days of community icons such as the Argo remain "forever wild."
- - -
Is quality of life in your community going the way of the Argo? Join and support your local civic association, and be a part of the solution!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Hey, Its Your Money - -

- - Sort Of. . .

Nassau County Comptroller's office finds "absence of financial controls" at County Clerk's office. [Click HERE to read Audit Report.]

And you wonder, with an accounting system from the stone age, why legal documents take 2-years to file, and nobody knows where the filing fees go.

Newsday reports that five current and former Commissioners of the Selden Fire District, as well as a former Montauk fire official and an official with the East Moriches Ambulance District, were arrested on charges ranging from Grand Larceny to mismanagement of taxpayer funds. [Click HERE to read, Five arrested in probe of Selden fire district's spending.]

And you wonder, with Special taxing Districts having their hands in everything from fire and water to sanitation and sewers, how so many of your tax dollars are slipping through your fingers and into their pockets.

The Governor, the Nassau County Executive, the Nassau County Comptroller, the Nassau County Assessor, and citizen/community/good government groups far and wide, are all calling for reform.

Join the bandwagon! Demand responsible, transparent, efficient government, from your town, your county, your state, and, yes, even your White House.

The most powerful weapons in the war on corrupt, ineffective, and self-serving government are in your hands. Those weapons, ladies and gentlemen, are your voices and your votes!

They can only continue to do this to us so long as you let them. . .

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Remember When Richie Kessel Was A Consumer Advocate?

LIPA Chief Delivered Us From The Evils Of LILCO -- Right Into Hands Of "Warm Weather" Surcharges, Fuel Adjustments, And Other Euphemistic Paddings Of LIers Electric Bills

Talk abounds that Richie Kessel, the guy who almost singlehandedly took down LILCO on behalf of Long Island's ratepayers, may be in line for Nassau County Comptroller, that is if current Comptroller, Howard Weitzman, gets Governor Spitzer's nod as State Tax Commissioner.

Kessel climbed the utility pole from rabble rouser to boss, and now seems poised to take his live wire act over to West Street in Mineola, as the County's chief fiscal watchdog.

Is Richie the guy we want watching over the financial pot at the County? How did he do managing the finances of the Long Island Power Authority? Is LIPA an efficient, well-run operation, or just another bloated public authority, sucking the life -- and the dollars -- out of the taxpayers and ratepayers to whom it is conveniently (and exclusively) plugged in?

No question that Richie Kessel championed the cause of the consumer in the 80s, but did he join the dark side as a corporate fat cat and political -- if not electrical -- power broker in the 90s and beyond?

This should be an interesting one to watch should the Weitzman move pan out, and one which you may want to offer opinion on by posting comments to this blog.
- - -
From The Spin Cycle at Newsday. . .

Kessel is a possibility

Nassau Comptroller Howard Weitzman has been talking with the Spitzer administration about becoming state tax commissioner. Should he take the job, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi would fill the vacancy with legislative approval.

Long Island Power Authority president Richard Kessel is said to be front-runner to replace Weitzman. Suozzi's office would not comment. Kessel, who has gotten along well with the media for 25 years, is suddenly standoffish. He replies through LIPA spokesman Michael Lowndes "no comment" when asked if he's interested in the job.

But more than one person noted that Kessel's appearance at Suozzi's State of the County address Tuesday was the first they could remember. And there he was at the same table with Suozzi Thursday at a Long Island Association breakfast listening to, and being acknowledged by, Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

- Sid Cassese on Long Island
- - -
Read New boss at LIPA plans big changes, including a code of ethics and a review of salaries and bonuses

Monday, March 19, 2007

State Aid To Education Is Formula For Failure

Disparity In State Aid Hurts All Our Children

The battle lines are being drawn again up in Albany. Upstate versus downstate. The City versus Long Island. Proposals that merely skirt the issues rather than address them tossed down State Street like so many taxpayer dollars in the wind.

The obvious inequities of the State Aid formulae -- both existing and proposed -- aside, here's the real question:

If NYC is getting 38% of the State Aid pie, and Long Island is getting 12%, where's the other 50% of State Aid to education going?

You got it. Upstate school districts, be they rich, poor, or midling, are enjoying that pie (some are even getting fat on it, with upwards of 80% of their budgets covered by your tax dollars), while Long Island is left with the crumbs -- and Long Island's homeowners are left to pick up the hefty remainder of the tab through outrageously high school property taxes.

Still wondering why your property taxes are so damned out of whack? Just look at the numbers.

Old formula. New formula. No formula at all. No matter how Albany slices that pie, the inequity in the distribution of State Aid to education is hurting those who are most vulnerable, most in need of a hand up, and most important to the future of New York -- our children.

Maybe its time to ask your State Legislator if the aid to education package your school district is slated to receive is right for you?
- - -
Albany Divided on Calculation of School Aid
By Michael Cooper

ALBANY, March 17 — For years, school aid in New York has been calculated with dozens of formulas that make the Human Genome Project look downright intelligible by comparison. But year after year, no matter which districts gained or lost students, or what data was plugged into the formulas, New York City always received close to 39 percent of new spending and Long Island received between 12 and 13 percent.

This year Gov. Eliot Spitzer, facing a court order that said New York City’s schools were being shortchanged, is trying to change the way the pie is divided. He is calling for a $7 billion increase in education spending over the next four years, and he wants to replace most of the existing formulas with a simpler, more universal one. He wants more money to go to the state’s high-needs districts, with 46 percent of the new aid next year sent to New York City and only 8 percent to Long Island.

This has the Republican-led State Senate up in arms, since many members come from suburban districts that have benefited from the old system. The idea of “breaking shares” has long been anathema to them.

So the Senate made a counterproposal that called for spending even more money than the governor called for, and adjusting his new uber-formula. The result? Their plan would send about 38.9 percent of the increased aid to New York City and about 13 percent to Long Island, maintaining the historic share system, according to an analysis by the governor’s budget division.

“What they have done in their budget is lock in place the shares system,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that has long advocated sending more aid to poor districts. “Their distribution formula is almost obscene in the way that it favors wealthy districts at the expense of high-needs students. In essence, they are locking in a lifetime of inequity.”

Republican senators counter that unless they are able to change the governor’s formula, more than 300 school districts will receive smaller increases of state aid than they were expecting, forcing many to raise their already high local property taxes or to adopt contingency budgets that cut important school programs.

The battle over Governor Spitzer’s school spending plan may not be as high-profile as the battle over his health care proposal, which has sparked a multimillion-dollar advertising war, but inside the Capitol it is being waged with even more passion.

The division of school aid has long been one of the touchiest subjects in the capital. In theory, officials try to take into account a number of variables: the number of pupils and their special needs; the wealth of the school district and how much it can be expected to raise for schools in local taxes; regional differences in costs; and a host of other factors.

New York City had 36.56 percent of the state’s students in 2005, and Long Island had 16.87 percent, according to an analysis by the New York State Council of School Superintendents. And the city has a higher proportion of students below the poverty level and students who are learning English or have other special needs.

In practice, politics has always played a role as well. When the budget comes out each year, the first things most lawmakers ask for are the “runs,” or computerized printouts showing how much the schools in their districts can expect to get.

But there are wide differences in how much each of the state’s nearly 700 school districts receives in state aid, how much comes from local taxes, and what is spent on each pupil. So while New York City spent $15,444 per pupil last year, according to an analysis by the school superintendents council, Great Neck spent $25,416 per pupil, a difference of almost $10,000 per student. Of course, districts like Great Neck rely heavily on local property taxes.

There are also wide disparities in how well students do. Only half of the students in big-city districts complete high school in four years, while 88 percent of those in wealthier districts do, according to the State Education Department. Only a quarter of the middle school students in big-city districts are proficient in math, compared with 82 percent in wealthier districts.
The historic ratio of school spending comes from a political decision by state officials to dole out money based on set “shares,” or percentages of new aid. When the state’s highest court ruled in 2003 that New York City’s schoolchildren were being deprived of their right to a sound, basic education, it found evidence that state officials agreed on the shares first, and then worked backward so the formulas produced the desired outcomes. Governor Spitzer’s education proposal calls for directing more of the new aid to New York City and other high-needs districts — a sea change for Albany.

But in recognition of the fact that homeowners in much of the state are straining under high property taxes that go in part to help pay for their schools, the governor links his education proposal to his plan to send more property tax relief to middle class homeowners.

The practical impact of the governor’s plan, as it relates to changing the share system, is modest for next year, since the new shares apply only to the $1.4 billion in new spending, not to the state’s entire $19.2 billion education budget. The state says that the city’s share of new aid is going up. The Bloomberg administration, though, says that because the state double-counts some education aid to the city, and is increasing education spending across the state, the city’s share of state education spending will actually fall. Mark Page, the mayor’s budget director, testified before the City Council recently that “the city will actually receive less than its usual 38 percent” next year under the governor’s plan.

Still, the city and the state were able to avert one of the biggest education budget battles of the year even before the governor presented his budget plan.

For years, as a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state, arguing for more school aid for New York City’s children, the city argued that the state should be the one to provide any additional aid that was needed.

But this year Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg agreed to pay more than 40 percent of the additional money over the next four years, an amount the city says it would have spent in any event, so that by the year 2010 the state will be sending the city an additional $3.17 billion a year while the city agrees to pay an additional $2.22 billion. (Of course, because of term limits, Mayor Bloomberg will no longer be in office at that time.)

The governor’s budget rejects the calls of some fiscal monitors who think the state should redirect money that currently goes to wealthy districts to poorer areas.

Instead, his budget includes a provision that every school district should receive at least a 3 percent increase in the aid given under his main formula, which he calls “foundation aid.”

But Senate Republicans warn that districts held to 3 percent foundation aid increases — a provision called “save harmless” — will suffer, because education expenses are rising faster than that. So they have proposed spending $358 million more than the governor recommends, and driving more money to low-needs districts. They acknowledge that this would essentially maintain the existing share system.

“Nobody gets less, and many, including the City of New York, receive more,” said Senator Stephen M. Saland, a Hudson Valley Republican who is chairman of the Senate education committee. “We believe that this provides equity, equity for all children — especially the 900,000 that are currently attending these ‘save harmless’ flat-lined districts.”

Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said, “By controlling spending, the governor was able to propose an historic investment in education, but if that influx of funding isn’t distributed via a reformed school aid formula and tied to stringent accountability measures, the investment isn’t likely to result in higher-quality education.”

The Senate’s proposal put education advocates in an awkward position: Should they accept a proposal that calls for more spending but uses the old shares system, or hold out for a new shares system? Several said that the Senate proposal was like getting a bonus instead of a raise — a nice influx of money in the short term, but one that is not built into salaries as a starting point for future years.

Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the court case, said: “This is a historic moment where we can finally realize the promise of C.F.E. The good news is that there will be a major investment in education — both the governor and the Senate have talked about major investments — but the critical element still is to make sure that the formula goes to the neediest districts.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Friday, March 16, 2007

In Celebration of Women's History

The League of Women Voters Honors. . .

The 22nd Annual Women’s History Celebration sponsored by the League of Women Voters on March 20, 2007 at the George Washington Manor, Roslyn, NY, 5-8pm, will honor three extraordinary Long Island organizations and individuals.

Kathleen Rice, Nassau County District Attorney, will be the dynamic keynote speaker. There will be a guest appearance of Actress and TV Host of Artscene in Long Island, Shirley Romaine, whose poetry will welcome in the Spring Season.

Honorees will bring interesting information about their advocacy.

Patricia Wood dedicates her life to educating the public about the relationship between environmental exposures and human health risks as the founder and Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education Organization.

Since it will be the first day of Spring, Patricia Wood will have her organization’s recommended aids to successful gardening. Take home Spring Alert Flyers (also in Spanish) for landscapers, Protecting Your Child’s Health: Avoiding Toxic Exposures, and Green Card- Organic Lawn Care Programs. Come early and talk to Patti Wood, who has trained over 700 landscapers for organic methods in Nassau and Westchester .

Sarah J. Meyland, Esq. has worked with a broad and diverse collection of organizations, including the League of Women Voters, to protect the groundwater supply of Long Island, especially the Lloyd Aquifer, and the water resources of New York State, voicing her concern that time is running out to implement much-needed groundwater management policies to ensure adequate drinking water needs now and in the future. She is the Director of the Center for Water resources Management at NYIT. She can give advice on what we can do to make sure our drinking water is safe.

Lisa Tyson, Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition works tirelessly on countless issues, specializing in transportation, affordable housing sustainability and tax issues and was instrumental in passing the Nassau County Living Wage Bill.

LIPC’s current campaigns include verified voting, transportation, campaign finance reform and clean elections. Ask her questions about reliable, accessible, affordable and community-friendly public transportation to reduce dependence on the automobile and the Department of Transportation’s 20-year plan for Long Island.

The dynamic keynote speaker of the LWVNC Women’s History Celebration is Kathleen Rice, Nassau County District Attorney There will be a guest appearance of Actress and TV Host of Artscene in Long Island, Shirley Romaine.

The three organizations being honored are not-for profit, volunteer-based, giving community support for the health and welfare of all the residents of Long Island.

The Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN) addresses the issues of hunger and homelessness on Long Island by providing food, shelter, long-term housing and supportive services in a dignified and respectful manner for those who seek their help.

The INN has grown to become the largest private social service agency of its kind on Long Island. It opened its first emergency shelter in l984. The INN began to plan and institute a series of wide-ranging programs to help people from all over Long Island who were plagued by hunger and homelessness. Helping hungry and homeless Long Islanders in an atmosphere of dignity and respect is a hallmark of the INN’s programs. Volunteer opportunities are in emergency shelter, soup kitchen, office support, and fundraising For further information call (516) 486-8506.

The second organization, ERASE Racism, uses education, research, advocacy and support to eliminate institutional racism on Long Island. V. Elaine Gross, President, states, "Racism is like an iceberg. On the surface of the iceberg is personal racism; where stereotypes and overt prejudice give it away. Deep below the surface is institutional and structural racism, hidden but extremely destructive. I invite you to join us in shining a spotlight on the policies and practices that must change to address racial inequities."

ERASE Racism seeks to educate and promote a dialogue among community leaders about the history, continuing existence, and operational realities of institutional racism on Long Island. It identifies specific manifestations of institutional racism, initially in housing, public education, economic development, and health.

"Summer, 2006 County Executive Thomas Suozzi signed into law an amendment to the Nassau County Administrative Code that the l9 member Nassau County legislature had unanimously
passed to expand the powers of the Nassau County Human Rights Commission. The law combats discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, creed, gender, age, disability, religion, source of income, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, familial status or ethnicity."

"The Amendment is significant because it creates a local fair housing enforcement system, by empowering the NCHRC to impose substantial penalties if discrimination is found." ERASE Racism is located at 6800 Jericho Turnpike, Suite 109W, Syosset, NY 11791-4401

The third organization is Circulo de la Hispanidad, Inc, which "improves the lives of individuals and their families on Long Island proactively addressing issues such as economic and leadership development, health education and counseling services.

The mission of its Career and Educational Services is to encourage full participation in civic community life and to expand work opportunities for its participants.

Circulo’s Career and Educational program empowers clients providing education in a safe, non-threatening, nurturing environmental where adults gain confidence communicating via enhanced skills ,: language proficiency computer technology, and social interaction. The Circulo de la Hispanidad computer technology training program printed the beautiful invitations and Journals for the LWVNC Women’s History Celebration, years 2006 and 2007.

Circulo also conducts after-school tutoring for elementary school children from bilingual and dual language programs.

Circulo’s Salva Domestic Violence Program provides English/Spanish bilingual support service to victims of domestic violence. The program operates a bilingual hotline to provide support, crisis intervention and education to individuals living with violence or who have questions about violence and support services. It operates two weekly support groups in Long Beach and Hempstead for violence survivors. The 24 hour Domestic Violence Support Hotline is. (516) 889-2849.

For further information about the LWVNC Women’s History celebration, March 20, 2007 reservations and/or commemorative journal call (516) 431-1628.
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Okay, ladies. Enjoy the accolades. We hereby declare April "Men's History Month." Pass the remote, and get me another beer from the fridge, will ya?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Legislative Gifts That Keep On Giving

Never Have So Few Given So Much To, Ah, So Few

Here they go again!

Leaders of the NYS Legislature -- in this instance, the State Senate -- doling out the pork.

Danny Hakim and Margot Williams of the New York Times report from Albany, where, at least in some quarters, its business as usual.

Pet Projects, Out in the Open

The Capitol was focused last week on the battle over the governor’s budget and the passage of major legislation on workers’ compensation and the civil confinement of sex offenders; Gov. Eliot Spitzer has scheduled signing ceremonies for both bills this week.

But the Senate also quietly released its latest list of what are known as member items — legislative pet projects decided largely in secret. After a court battle, lawmakers last year started fully disclosing the items, which ran to $200 million in the most recent budget.

The Senate released information about $9.3 million worth of items last week, and three Republicans in the 62-member chamber accounted for almost half. The Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, and the deputy majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, each directed roughly $1.3 million to their districts, while Senator John A. DeFrancisco distributed nearly $1.9 million.

Member items have been criticized by government watchdogs as pork-barrel spending that uses public money to curry political favor, with Democrats controlling the funds in the Assembly and Republicans doing so in the Senate. The governor has said that all future projects will be spelled out in the budget.

Among the notable new items: Senate Republicans directed $500,000 to an organization opposing a company’s proposal to build a high-voltage electricity transmission line from the Utica area to the New York City suburbs. And Senator Martin J. Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, directed $170,000 to HeartShare Human Services, a community group in his district run by a political ally, William R. Guarinello, who has contributed thousands of dollars to his campaign fund. HeartShare received $320,000 over the previous two fiscal years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hempstead Town To Move Operations To Dubai

"Its A Great Place To Raise A Family," Says Town Supervisor Kate Murray

Quick on the heels of Haliburton's exodus from the U.S. -- moving both corporate HQ and Dick Cheney's Vice-Presidential Library to the middle eastern emirate of Dubai -- Town of Hempstead officials announced today that they will vacate Town Hall (now located in the village of Hempstead) by year's end, setting up shop and printing presses in this wealthy kingdom.

"Where better to establish a fiefdom that runs on the rules of antiquity, catering to the wealthy and the privileged," said Town Councilman and newly annointed Prince of Dubai, Mohammed Al Sadr Santino.

Already, hoards of GOP Committeemen have renewed passports (at the Town Clerk's convenient "one-stop passport shop"), and are en route as we blog to the new Town Hall (dubbed by County Republican officials as the Palace of the Mondelloids) in beautiful downtown Dubai City.

"I'm thinking Victorian-Style street lamps near those palm trees," declared a jubilant Kate Murray, as she tried on burqa in various shades of black. "And brick pavers leading down to the beach," continued the Supervisor. "That would be a nice touch."

Leaving the Town of Hempstead behind for new digs in Dubai wasn't an easy decision for Kate & Company.

"Sure, we've had it with those peons whining about illegal apartments, blighted downtowns, special taxing districts, and lax code enforcement," said Murray. "Still, I'll miss those lunches and 4 o'clock snacks from the Coliseum Deli."

According to Charles Theofan, Commissioner of the Town's Department of Planning & Economic Development, once the Town's operations have fully migrated to Dubai, the population of America's largest Township will likely decrease by some 100,000 people.

"That's the number of GOP Committeemen, their spouses, parents, and fourth cousins thrice removed, on the Town's payroll," said Theofan.

The good news is that the current Town Hall will be readily convertible into affordable housing -- or a combination OTB Parlor and storage facility.

John Loeffel, former Building Commish for the Town of Hempstead, leaves his Knoll Lane home tomorrow for Dubai City, where he will serve as head of the Town's advance team, securing necessary permits and variances -- or not.

Will the residents of Hempstead Town, left behind to fend for themselves, be able to make do without an effective -- and local -- Town government?

"We've been getting by without for over 100 years," chortled an Elmont civic leader, speaking only on condition that he be permitted to help Kate pack her steamer trunk. "Having no Town government at all could only be an improvement!"

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Clams for the Taking in Hempstead Town

Seniors Offered Free Clamming Permits By Town; Building Permits, On Other Hand, Will Cost You

They may be clamming up at Hempstead Town Hall about the recent building permit fiasco, but all is not lost.

Senior citizens, many of whom can no longer afford to live in their own houses due to outrageous property taxes, ongoing LIPAsuction, and an ever-escalating cost of living here on Long Island, can at least still eat practically for free -- that is, if they like clams!

Yes, the Town of Hempstead, as per recent release, will now issue clamming permits absolutely free to resident seniors.

While some may think it odd that the Town, faced with seemingly serious ethical problems internally, and making a poor showing in resolving external issues such as the proliferation of illegal accessory apartments, the spread of blight and decay in our downtown business districts, and the rampant code violations that glare at us from every corner, is hyped up about free clamming permits, such silly self-promotion in Hempstead Town is par for the course.

Indeed, if the Earth were about to sustain a direct hit from a meteor, destined to destroy all life as we know it, Kate Murray would be sending out a Murraygram, reminding residents to apply sunscreen!

Thank goodness our seniors won't starve. And bless Kate Murray's tax frozen little heart for getting these free clamming permits to the Town's seniors while the clamming season is still young!

As for Town of Hempstead residents under the age of 60, well, like the rest of us, you'll just have to continue to eat crow.

Please display your clamming permits/Re-Elect Kate Murray lawn signs proudly and prominently.
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Clamming License Available to Town of Hempstead Senior Residents at No Charge
Supervisor Kate Murray and Councilwoman Angie Cullin announced that Town of Hempstead Clamming Licenses are available free of charge to residents ages 60 and over.

“With the warmer weather on the horizon, town residents are gearing up for the clamming season,” said Supervisor Murray. “Nearly 100 senior residents have already visited the Town of Hempstead Department of Conservation and Waterways in Point Lookout this year to apply for their free clamming permits.”

The permit is issued for non-commercial usage only and is valid for five years through December 31 of the expiring year. “The normal charge for this permit is $10, but the Town of Hempstead is happy to waive this charge for residents 60 years and over,” said Councilwoman Cullin. “Residents can pick up their permits at the Department of Conservation and Waterways office, located just west of the Loop Parkway on the north side of Lido Boulevard in Point Lookout.”

To contact the Conversation and Waterways office, call 516-431-9200.

“Conservation and Waterways’ science division manages the town's highly-acclaimed clam growout and seeding program which adds more than two million clams to the Town of Hempstead bays annually,” said Murray. “So take advantage of this free permit offer and enjoy a great day of clamming in Hempstead Town’s bays.”