Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Call For A "Quiet Revolution?"

Time For Taxpayers To Question "Why" And Scream, "No More!"

A basic premise of The Community Alliance blog -- indeed, the very foundation of our organization's existence -- is that good citizens need to be informed and involved if government is to work, and to work for us.

How many times -- on issues ranging from property taxes to illegal accessory apartments, affordable housing to zoning -- have we called upon residents to borrow a page from the movie Network (heck, rent the DVD), and to open their windows, stick their heads out, and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore?"

At least once or twice, if memory serves.

If we've said it once, we've said it a thousand times: "Join your local civic." "Attend town meetings and community forums." "Ask your (legislator, town supervisor, local commissioner, school board trustee), 'What have you done for our community lately?'" "Attend budget hearings and demand to know where every tax dollar is being spent." And for your own sake, if not that of your neighbors, "VOTE!"

On that last, but certainly not insignificant point, we've pondered, "When we send the same elected officials back to the same jobs, year after year after year (substitute "decade" or "century" where applicable), do we really expect anything will change?"

Unfortunately, many of our musings (some say, tirades) fall upon the deaf ears of the indifferent, bounce off the hardened mindsets of the disenfranchised, and are cast aside as hollow calls to action by taxpayers long frustrated by the broken promises of the elected, the annointed, and those who have become the entrenched benefactors of a self-perpetuating system that thrives on the apathy of the electorate.

Cynicism notwithstanding, perhaps there's now a new wave of enthusiasm, churned up in the sometimes frenetic and too often overstated rhetorical waters of change, evidenced by voters turning out at the polls in record numbers, offering the hope that, if not a revolution, then at least a realization, is at hand.

A realization that it is, after all, the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and the taxpayer who, above all, needs to be that squeak.
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From Newsday's Editorial Page

TO: Fellow Mad-as-Hell Taxpayers

Another day, another scandal involving wasted tax dollars. Isn't that the way you feel sometimes when you pick up the newspaper?

This past week, there was a story about a prosperous-looking lawyer, Lawrence Reich, who wriggled his way into the state pension system. He did so by having himself listed as a full-time employee on the books of five separate Long Island school districts. In fact, he was working as a consultant, but his dishonesty qualified him for a public pension of nearly $62,000 a year. By the end of the week, two more law firms and 11 school districts were implicated in similar sweetheart deals. We taxpayers are their dupes.

Then there was the $85,000 Mastic Beach public pool tile repair that turned into a $7.1-million payday for the contractors. Can you imagine continuing to sign those bills without at least asking a few tough questions? If hard-working, honest Long Islanders aren't fed up by now with this abuse of our trust, then we are as numb as ocean swimmers in February.

It's one thing to look at a rising property tax bill and think, "At least I'm getting good services." Most people don't mind paying for a fair value, right?

But giving money to people who game the system, who are continually figuring out new and sneakier ways to enrich themselves beyond our control ... that leaves a sick feeling.

One way to handle it is to immerse ourselves in our busy lives. We shrug about how we're powerless, roll up the windows in our minivans and keep driving on.

But reality continues to knock.

This winter, we learned that the superintendent of the Water Authority of Great Neck North, Robert Graziano, makes $192,427 a year, which is more than the salary for the governor of New York! He bought a car on the taxpayer's dime - a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria - and also a 42-inch plasma TV. He justified the TV to his board by saying it was for "security" purposes. Oh, sure. That Giants-Patriots game probably never looked safer.

The man even hired his son, Gregory, and got him a $38,300 pay increase just this year. Which of us wouldn't like to obtain secure jobs for our children and pay them enough to live in Nassau County? Gregory Graziano's salary is now $140,000.

These special districts are part of what drives up the cost of living and makes it hard for our children to settle here. Special taxing districts bill Nassau and Suffolk taxpayers $500 million a year, or about $726 for every family of four. That money could go a long way toward paying the home heating bills this winter.

Time to wake up

It feels as though some public employees - not all of them, of course; thank goodness there are still dedicated public servants here who respect their constituents - have lost their sense of honor. Honor is an old-fashioned word, but what else keeps someone from dipping a hand in the till when he or she can get away with it?

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Brian X. Foley, who took office five years into the project, says he welcomes an investigation of the out-of-control spending on the Mastic Beach pool. Too bad it wasn't investigated long before all the headlines. Or how about Harborfields' former assistant schools superintendent, who warned Reich in 2005 that he should correct the record of his employment status or risk having his "picture in Newsday"?

Really, is public humiliation the only check on these people? Sometimes, it feels as though they are laughing at us.

The first wake-up call came a few years ago, when officials announced that Roslyn school administrators had stolen millions of dollars from the district. Don't you remember seeing the former school superintendent, Frank Tassone, dressed for his sentencing in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit? He got four to 12 years in prison. What a shame. This is a man who was in a position to be a role model for our children. Let's hope they don't follow his example.

His arrest led to probes of several Island school districts, and that lesson wasn't lost on voters. They rejected school budgets in near-record numbers in 2005. The voting booth is one of the only outlets for our outrage.

But most of the school districts scheduled a second vote and won. Word spread among parents that if the budgets weren't approved, the schools would cut our classroom teacher's aide or the band program or bus service - things that are near to our hearts. Of course we felt blackmailed into passing the budget on the second vote. Even when taxpayers try to stand up, we get shoved back down into our seats.

Is it any wonder we develop a cynical shell and tune out?

Only a few hundred people voted in this past December's election of special district representatives, even after the Graziano tale and other abuses of the system came to light. To be fair, one would have to be a walking Day Runner to keep up with these special district election schedules. There are 11 dates a year across Long Island - one every month except for February.

Reform is clearly needed. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has at least proposed to do away with the salaries and benefits of special district officers; unpaid posts are the norm in most of New York. Officials should also create a simpler election calendar. And, sure, the FBI is on the case investigating Reich. County prosecutors, state comptrollers, IRS agents - we can rely on them to step in when a situation turns really bad.But school embezzlers and other scoundrels will probably keep gambling that they won't get caught.

What to do, what to do?

There's more we can do, as individuals. But it's going to take stepping on the brakes of that minivan and rolling down our windows. It's going to take a quiet revolution in what we value.

Say we decided to give up boasting about our cars or boats or summer homes. Say we bragged instead about how carefully our school district spends our money - and we know because we attend the meetings or serve on the board.

We could keep an eye open for that commissioner or labor leader living beyond his or her means, and ask how that's possible. When a public pool is closed for five years running - stranding the girls' swim team on dry land - we could make a few more inquiries. Learn about the Freedom of Information Act. Request documentation. Write a letter to the editor. Blow the whistle.

There are a few souls in every community who get involved beyond all expectation. Perhaps we could learn to treasure them more, and join them. That would give new meaning to the word "citizen." That would be an example worth setting.

Forward this message to everyone you know.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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