Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death By Special District Taxes

Cut Off The Head Of The Beast And Be Done With It

Those pesky special taxing districts.

Water. Sanitation. Fire. Sewer. To name but four out of more than 2400.

Chop 'em in half, and they simply regenerate, like so many earth worms, with major medical insurance and prepaid funeral expenses.

Expose 'em to the supposedly cleansing light of day -- figuring the public will not long stand for the shenanigans of full-time benefits and life-time pensions for part-time employment in largely no-show jobs -- and they just burrow further and further into the darkness.

Conjure up legislation that would make the service of special district personnel truly voluntary (and watch every last one of 'em run away faster than a roach under a 1000-watt Klieg light), and the folks in Albany will let it wither and die.

Now comes the report of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness (we know, we know) -- a report due out on April 15th, but set to be unveiled one week from today -- which should set the stage for the exit of the special districts from the taxing scene, once and for all.

Or will it?

These local-yokel fiefdoms have been around since the turn of the last century, appendages of an era that passed us by long ago, when there was the need for such entities to provide essential services such as garbage collection and water, and the words "local control" actually meant something.

Today, with the proliferation of governmental entities dwarfed only by that of al-Qaeda training camps, and the duplication -- and often, quadruplication of services -- by town, county, and state, there seems little need to keep these bastions of patronage and cronyism (money-suckers all) around, let alone to permit commissioners and their every blood-relative to remain on the public dole.

A piecemeal reining in of the powers and emoluments of the special districts hasn't proven successful in the past, and as tempting as it may be to do a "snip-snip" here and a "clip-clip" there, until we cut off the oxygen to the special district warlords, they will find a way to continue to milk the public cash cow.

No more cows for the special taxing districts, say we. Turkeys. As in cold turkey.

Legislate the special districts out of existence -- and make certain that the folks in Albany do it before election day, lest we be spoon-feeding our tax dollars to the local commissioners for another two years or more.

Then, turn over the responsibilities for providing municipal services to those who already do it elsewhere (i.e., the townships), and who, for the most part, do it just as well, and for a heck of a lot less money, than the special districts.

The time has come (actually, the time came years ago. We just stopped the clock along the way) to strike at the heart of the special district beast, killing it dead, then incinerating the body (call Covanta), and spreading the ashes over Long Island Sound (sorry, Citizens Campaign for the Environment), just to be sure.

Local taxpayers -- particularly financially-strapped homeowners -- can little afford to stand by as the special taxing districts die slowly, gasping for air, hanging on to our wallets for dear life, until the day arrives (if ever) when we can pull our hard-earned money free from the commissioners' cold, dead hands.

As for those special district commissioners -- they of $700 steak dinners, 50-inch plasma TVs, and gas-guzzling SUVs -- well, let them get real jobs, and actually work for a living, pay for their benefits, and do without the perks, just like the rest of us!
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From the Editorial page of Newsday:

The special-district dance

DiNapoli wants to go slow; Spitzer had tougher tack. But something's gotta give

Two schools of thought are forming about how best to respond to the continuing reports of the ways special districts guzzle taxpayer dollars.

One prefers the slow, death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach. This favors incremental change - such as shining a bright light on the waste, in the hope that voters will have nothing better to do than analyze sewer financial statements and, duly enlightened, will start asking tough questions.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli takes this path by advocating legislation to establish a uniform special-district voting day. His bill would also require that all budget information be available online and that there be public budget hearings, scheduled with plenty of notice.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who seems to embrace all strategies, said, "This is a no-brainer." It's also a no-brainer that this isn't enough to eliminate the waste and patronage.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer advocated a much bolder, slash-and-burn approach, but it disappeared from Albany shortly after he did. Spitzer's budget included a proposal that would have cut off salary and benefits to special district commissioners, making them no different from those who serve for free on school, library and fire-district boards. This would have eliminated an estimated $1 million a year in special-district spending in Nassau County, which holds the honor of having more of these plum jobs than any other county in the state.

One of Spitzer's legacies is the Commission on Local Government and Efficiency, which is scheduled next Wednesday to issue an aggressive and comprehensive set of recommendations of ways taxpayers can save money but maintain municipal services. That gives everyone a little more time to decide whether poking at the problem or going for the jugular is the best strategy.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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