Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Lament Of A Special District Commissioner

Perks, Bennies, Pay-Days, And Dinner At Morton's Could Soon Be A Thing Of The Past

A down-and-out Max Bialistock of The Producers fame would shamelessy croon, "I used to be the King, the King of old Broadway."

That was, until he lost it all.

Here on Long Island, where there are more commissioner-operated special taxing districts -- and accordingly, more abuse of the taxpayer -- the beneficiaries of the patronage mill may well be singing a similar tune.

"I used to be the Commissioner, the Commissioner of Sanitary District 1. But now they've taken my pay and perks, and it looks as though I'm done!"

Woe would be the commissioners of New York's infamous special taxing districts if two measures proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer gain support in and passage through the NYS Legislature.

The first calls for all special district commissioners to serve without compensation (as do library board trustees and school board members).

No more 15 "meetings" per month at $100 a pop per non-appearing commish. Off with the orthodonture for the commissioner's wife. Gone to the all-expenses-paid junkets to Vegas, the gratuitous golf outings, the lifetime health care, and the $700 taxpayer-paid steak dinners.

The second proposal, aimed solely at the sanitation districts, turns operations, but for what type of service will be provided, over to the local townships; the towns, historically, having provided the service, contemporaneously with the special districts, of equal quality, and at less expense to John Q. Public.

The sanitary districts would continue to exist, at least on paper, although commissioners, serving as volunteers (that means no pay, no benefits, and no taxpayer-funded vacations, folks), would decide things like whether your trash will be picked up at the curb or at the back door, and not whether to use tax dollars for expensive SUVs, life insurance policies, or winters in Florida under the thinly veiled guise of attendance at conferences.

If all of this sounds a note or two of familiarity, it should. The Community Alliance has been calling for Albany to reign in the special taxing districts going on three years now, ever since Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson brought the abuses of these self-serving fiefdoms to the fore in 2005.

The Governor's proposals come in advance of the findings of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness, due out in April.

Not looking to steal the Commission's thunder (clearly, the measures proferred come out of the workings of the Commission), the Governor seeks to take the lead in putting the measures to the Legislature, rather than waiting for the Legislature to act on its own.

Great move, Mr. Spitzer! If New Yorkers wait for legislative initiative on the infamous special districts, they'll be paying through the nose for a long, long time to come.

Unlikely that any such measure would make it out of committee to the Assembly floor, lest Speaker Silver was feeling particularly magnanimous, and the GOP-controlled Senate is already lining up in a Nancy Reaganesque parade of "Just Say No" to anything that might actually loosen the political patronage grip at home -- that which they so humbly allude to as "local control."

Of course, it would behoove the members of New York's State Legislature to move these measures, and to do so quickly and without partisan rancor.

After all, the public's patience with paying more than the neighbors pay for like services, and for special district commissioners (and their families) who rake it in on the public dole while the taxpayer gets raked over the coals, has all but worn thin.

The public cry here should be -- no, must be -- "Pass the Governor's proposals to reign in the special districts, or we'll pass on your re-election bid come November." [Every seat in the NYS Legislature is up for graps in '08. They need your votes. We know it. They know it.]

Before the State Legislature this session will be many tough decisions. Among them, how to close a $4.4 billion gap, slash pork-barrel spending, equitably and adequately fund public education, and, yes, put a lid on runaway school property taxes.

That's a plate full, and then some.

As for the Governor's proposals to have the special district commissioners serve gratis, and to turn the operations and taxing authority of the sanitary districts over to the towns, well, DUH, that's practically a no-brainer -- even for our State Legislators, zions of dysfunction, and masters of form over substance, be they.

Folks, 2008 is our year. The opportunity to save millions in taxpayer dollars. Yes, millions. The chance to change the status quo, and change it so that rather than continue to permit the few to pick the pockets of the many, we create a system of parity, accountability, and transparency.

Giving the people what they want. Saving the taxpayer real money. Eliminating waste. Consolidating services.

Now that's what we call, "local control!"
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From Newsday:

Spitzer proposes to streamline special districts

Gov. Eliot Spitzer is expected to recommend in his budget message today that all pay and benefits for more than 130 commissioners who oversee special districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties be eliminated, county and state officials said yesterday. Spitzer also is expected to propose that towns take over the day-to-day management of one type of special district - sanitary districts, which collect garbage. He is not expected to address other types of special districts today.

The commissioners would remain in place to determine the kind of service offered.

Both recommendations, which are fraught with political implications because special districts are seen as patronage mills, need state legislation before being enacted. Although state officials did not estimate the cost savings, payroll records obtained by Newsday show that eliminating commissioners' salaries alone would save taxpayers - mostly in Nassau - at least $1 million a year. Eliminating health benefits would save tens of thousands more because commissioners, who work part-time, are eligible for lifetime benefits. Currently, coverage costs a district about $7,000 for an individual and $15,000 for family coverage. Officials who spoke to Newsday yesterday about Spitzer's expected proposal asked not to be identified.

Suozzi applauds proposal
Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who has advocated streamlining local governments, said in a statement yesterday he applauded the governor's action.

"Unfortunately, recent stories about some bad apples and abuses cast doubt over the entire system and reform is necessary," he said. Spitzer's proposals follow Newsday stories on the lavish pay, benefits and perks given to commissioners of special districts, the tiny units of government that handle such services as water and garbage pickup in specific areas. Newsday's review of district financial records, obtained last year under the Freedom of Information law, found that a select group of part-time public officials reaped a bonanza in benefits, getting paid to attend golf outings, for example, and garnering lifetime health benefits for themselves and, in many cases, their spouses, too.

Spitzer, who has decried the tax burden imposed by multiple layers of government throughout New York State, established a statewide commission on special districts last year. The commission is due to issue its report April 15. The people who spoke to Newsday about the governor's proposal said the public outcry over pay and benefits in the wake of Newsday's stories persuaded them to act sooner and release these two recommendations early.

For years, the independent special districts have had limited public oversight because they are run by their own boards. They are not required to file reports with the state comptroller, and there are no legal limits on the fringe benefits commissioners may give themselves. Yet they receive an estimated $500 million yearly from taxpayers. Although special districts receive no state funding, the compensation paid to commissioners is permitted by state law, which is why the governor chose to include the recommendations in his budget message, the sources said.

Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, whose office has issued a number of audits critical of spending in special districts, said the recommendations primarily affect Nassau County. Commissioners in special districts outside Long Island do not get paid, he said. By law, fire district commissioners do not receive pay. Nor do library trustees or school board members. By contrast, commissioners of park, water and sewer districts may receive $80 to $100 per diem, a payment for attending a meeting. Sanitation commissioners may earn up to $7,500 a year. These payments make commissioners eligible to earn time in the state pension system.

Suozzi said such a system of pay for some and not for others was unfair.

Jeffrey LoSquadro, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Water Commissioners Association, defended commissioners' work. As for eliminating their pay and benefits, he said, "I think it's going to affect the quality of the people you get serving."

North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, a Democrat, agreed. "If you take away the incentive for being a commissioner, fewer people will apply for these positions, leaving a void that the town will have to fill."

Concern in Hempstead
The recommendation that the towns take over the management of independent sanitary districts probably would have the biggest impact in Hempstead, which has five garbage districts employing more than 500 people. Their budgets total nearly $60 million.

"We're happy that government officials at the county and state level think we do a good job," said Hempstead Town spokesman Michael Deery. "If a community wants us to do the job, we'd be happy to."

However, he added, "We're not going to impose our will on a community."

Weitzman said a town takeover of sanitary districts would save millions of dollars in insurance costs and operating expenses and would lead to greater "transparency" in operations.

Of the governor's recommendations, he said, "This is an important first step."

Salaries, fringe benefits
A Newsday review of salaries found that district commissioners not only get paid but get generous health benefits as well.

A review of financial records revealed exceptionally high salaries in special districts, such as $93,000 for a full-time meter reader in Jericho. Studies show that public-sector salaries on Long Island are on average higher than private-sector salaries.

Special districts provide fringe benefits that go beyond the already generous health benefits given to other public employees. Examples include fully paid braces, cancer coverage and Medi-Gap insurance.

Commissioners and employees of special districts enjoy a variety of perks, ranging from cars to travel and, in one case, a house.

Especially taxing
A special district provides a certain service, such as garbage pickup or water hookup, to a specific geographic area. The first such districts were created after the 1920s and grew as Long Island developed, mostly concentrated in Nassau County.

Long Island has

Spitzer's proposals would impact

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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