Monday, March 24, 2008

Dinosaurs That Refuse To Die

And The Jurassic Park Mentality That Gives Rise To Health Insurance For The Dead

The Special District Commissioners say, "It ain't broken, so don't fix it."

State Senators, who have legislation before them that would end pay and benefits to Special District Commissioners, say, "Wait and see."

And, Kate Murray, Supervisor for the Town of Hempstead -- the Special District capital of the world -- says, "The State shouldn't tell the Town what to do." [No, of course not. Only the Town of Hempstead, which espouses no control over anything, can tell everyone else -- from the County on Assessments to the public on what is best for their own communities -- what to do.]

Does anyone really care what the taxpayer has to say?

There's only one reason to keep the Special Districts -- Frankenstein monsters all -- alive. PATRONAGE, as an age-old means of keeping a stranglehold on power.

Enough with the talk, the stalling, the balking, and the politics as usual that empties homeowners' pockets and signifies nothing.

The time has come for the Special taxing Districts and their tax-dollar sucking cadre to go, and for those who are elected to represent the taxpayers to do just that -- REPRESENT US!
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From The New York Times:

A Skeptical New Look at Special Tax Districts

BEING dead was no obstacle to receiving health benefits from Hempstead Sanitary District No. 1 in Lawrence, one of 24 special sanitation districts in the Town of Hempstead.

An audit by the state comptroller’s office last year found that the district, which picks up garbage in the Five Towns area and parts of Valley Stream, continued to pay health insurance premiums for a former employee for three years after the employee’s death — in all more, than $16,000.

That is small change compared with tax increases that some fire districts have been seeking for new firehouses.

But taxpayers, weary of paying hefty property tax bills during tough economic times, are beginning to send loud messages that enough is enough.

Last week, taxpayers in Lindenhurst rejected a request for a $7.5 million bond to build a new firehouse. A few days before, voters in Setauket overwhelming defeated a $12. 9 million bond issue.

And local officials are beginning to hear from taxpayers that they want more accountability for special districts of all description, including sanitary, water and library districts and even once-sacrosanct volunteer fire departments.

For homeowners in Setauket, the cost of the fire district bond that they rejected on March 11 would have been about $88 a year in additional taxes for the average homeowner over 25 years. In Lindenhurst, the $7.5 million fire district bond would have cost the average homeowner nearly $60 a year for 20 years.

“There was a time when these districts operated under the radar and people who were happy with the services didn’t care what was going on,” said Howard S. Weitzman, the Nassau County comptroller, whose audits of sanitation and water districts beginning in 2005 touched off calls for reform. “But that’s over.”

There are some 340 special districts in Nassau and Suffolk Counties providing garbage collection, water, fire protection and library services — a bewildering array of subgovernments with direct access to the public’s pocketbook. The district’s commissioners are elected in low-turnout and often uncontested elections in what Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, has called a crazy quilt of election dates.

Special district taxes show up on property tax bills and, particularly in Nassau, are part of the reason property taxes on the Island are among the highest in the country. Special districts cost Nassau homeowners an average of $946 in property taxes and Suffolk homeowners an average of $512, the state comptroller’s office said in December.

Mr. Suozzi has sought a plan for consolidating or eliminating special districts; his Suffolk County counterpart, Steve Levy, asked the Long Island Regional Planning Board to study how special districts could be consolidated. And State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli proposed measures to make special districts more accountable.

Meanwhile, the Weitzman audits have detailed dozens of examples of what they called questionable payments, lax accounting, lavish pay and benefits, political cronyism and nepotism in some sanitation and water districts that cost taxpayers millions. (The audits did not include fire districts.)

There is often minimal public involvement in the decisions to spend money in the special districts. For example, a tiny fraction of eligible voters in the Riverhead Fire District, which covers about 21,500 residents, approved, by a 393-to-117 vote, a $14.7 million bond last March to build a new firehouse.

The 43,000-square-foot, 12-bay firehouse, which is now under construction to serve a department of 220, is nearly three times the size of the current firehouse. The average Riverhead homeowner will pay about $85 extra a year for 20 years for the firehouse, which the district said was necessary to house larger trucks and equipment and improve fire safety.

Mr. Weitzman’s office said that the more than 200 commissioner-run special districts in Nassau alone levied more than $491 million in property taxes last year, and the figure does not include fees paid to water districts. In Suffolk, the property tax levy from special districts was $169.5 million, said the governor’s office, which estimated that other New York counties levy an average of $7.7 million.

Nassau leads the state in the number of paid, benefits-collecting commissioners in sanitary and water districts. They typically receive $80 to $100 for meetings but also health insurance, including for family members, and credit toward state pensions.

Payrolls, per diem payments, benefits, trips and new firehouses are now all under scrutiny, and major changes could come as soon as April 1.

That is the earliest date for adoption of the 2008 state budget, which includes proposals by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer to end pay and benefits for special district commissioners, encourage towns like Hempstead to take over sanitation districts and make it easier for voters to dissolve high-tax fire districts.

With Mr. Spitzer’s resignation, the prospects for his proposed changes became uncertain. The new governor, David A. Paterson, who grew up in Hempstead, has pledged to carry forward Mr. Spitzer’s broader reform agenda.

But two Republican state senators from Nassau County said any changes in special districts on Long Island should await a full debate after a report due April 15 from the State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, which Mr. Spitzer created.

“This is going to take some analysis,” said State Senator Carl L. Marcellino, a Republican of Oyster Bay. “Why don’t we just wait for the report?” A spokesman for State Senator Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre who is the Senate deputy majority leader, said Mr. Skelos also wanted to wait for the report.

Mr. Weitzman, a Democrat from Great Neck Estates and a member of the commission, said special district reforms in the Spitzer budget had been recommended by the commission and would be in the report.

Laura K. Mallay of South Hempstead, executive director of Residents for Efficient Special Districts, said the group would campaign for special district changes even if the Spitzer proposals faltered. “There are definitely solutions out there,” she said. “The problem is not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know, and our goal is to make sure every taxpayer on Long Island knows.”

Mr. Weitzman said that under the commission’s recommendations, the greatest savings would be in Hempstead, where a town takeover of garbage collection in special districts would save taxpayers about $18 million a year, or $168 for an average household.

Kate Murray, a Republican who is the Hempstead supervisor, has said she opposes any state effort to force the town to take over from the districts, said Michael Deery, a town spokesman.

“We don’t think state government should impose the governor’s will on the people,” Mr. Deery said. He said there had been no outpouring of sentiment from residents in special garbage districts asking for the town to take over collection.

Water and fire districts are also opposing the changes Mr. Spitzer proposed.

“Why are we going to fix something that is not broken?” said Karl Schweitzer, a commissioner of the Hicksville Water District.

Mr. Schweitzer said he collected about $8,200 last year for attending district meetings. Mr. Weitzman’s office, which found overspending in the district in a 2007 audit, said Mr. Schweitzer received more than $26,000 in health and dental benefits in 2004 and 2005, the years the audit covered.

Earlier this month, in a broadening of the special district inquiry, Mr. Weitzman said his office would review hiring practices for lawyers, accountants and consultants in 44 commissioner-run special districts in Nassau, including five library districts. Mr. Weitzman said he would share his findings with Andrew M. Cuomo, the state attorney general, who is conducting a similar investigation statewide.

The inquiries follow reports in Newsday about five school districts classifying an outside lawyer, Lawrence Reich, as a payroll employee, enabling him to qualify for employee benefits including a state pension. The state comptroller’s office issued an opinion that Mr. Reich should repay pension money he had collected since September 2006.

Reports of the practice prompted investigations by Mr. Cuomo, the Internal Revenue Service and the F.B.I. A spokesman for the Nassau district attorney’s office, Eric Phillips, said there were active investigations by that office into several special districts.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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