Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Community: It's What's For Dinner

What's On Your Plate?

At this time of year, we tend to become reflective, pondering, as we re-read this blog from the first post (think of it as a catharsis for the new year), what strides have we made, and what remains to be accomplished, on this journey to bring a fresh, new vision to America's oldest suburb.

At the same time, as we ask ourselves, "what more can we do to improve the quality of life here on Long Island?," we also ask you to consider your involvement (or is it your lack thereof?) in your own community.

What have you done this past year to make your hometown a better place to live, to work, to raise a family? What have you added to the quality of life of that place you hang your hat?

Moreover, we ask you to ask yourself, "what can I do in the year ahead to improve the lot of my neighbors, my friends, and, yes, my family?"

Involvement, to be sure, is a matter of degree. To many, its as simple as joining a civic association, Kiwanis, Rotary, the PTA, and paying those dues. To others -- far too few, we lament -- it is immersing oneself in the lifeblood of community; breathing, eating, sleeping, and, yes, perchance, dreaming of ways we can make great hometowns even better.

The issues we've addressed in these blogposts, and the questions raised -- by us and by you -- help to foster, in this online "think tank" of sorts, an atmosphere where, in terms of community growth and revitalization, all things are possible.

We hope, that through these blogposts, we have created a wave of enthusiasm, if not on the Avenue, then at least on your block, inspiring just a few more of you to action.

We know that for some, the community-building process has taken on new meaning, for better, we hope. And for still others, the "think and suggest" approach of this blog, and our incessant (did you say, annoying?) call to action, has brought to light a new found vision.

Blame it all on us (or thank us later). We can't help it. Community, after all, is our passion. We hope you make it yours.

From all of us at The Community Alliance, happy holidays, and the very best for a healthy and peaceful new year!
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Thoughts, comments, suggestions? Issues to discuss? Ideas to share with your neighbors?

Hey, it's your community! Write us (or submit a Guest Blog, if the mood should strike) at thecommunityalliance@yahoo.com.
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From The Community Alliance Blog:

Friday, November 02, 2007

Our Passion Is Community
What's Yours?

Rarely a day passes that someone doesn't ask, "Why do you guys keep on writing? Where do you find the energy? Does any of this really make a difference?"

The answer to "why" is simple. We write because we care about community -- its people, its prospects, its potential. We write to explore the issues, to examine the solutions, and to ponder the seemingly imponderable. We write to illuminate, to enlighten, and, yes, to provoke your reaction -- whether that reaction is a grin, a grimace, or a rush over to the Board of Elections to register to vote.

We write, because that's what we do. It is a trumpet call to action; a boistrous prayer for relief; a curse at that darned candle that burns our hand as we stumble our way in the darkness.

Where do we find the energy? Well, some of us sleep at night. Others, blog. Besides, it takes a lot more energy to frown than it does to smile, and just sitting there, taking it, is not our style.

Does any of this make a difference? Perhaps not, in the overall scheme of things. After all, the same issues we railed about on Day One continue to confound us. [And no one is rushing to nominate us for the Town's Make A Difference Award.] And yet, clearly, we are making a difference, if only one person, one mind, one perspective, one vote, at a time.

One more person thinking. One more person questioning. One more person getting involved in community.

We are reminded of the story of the little girl standing on a beach amidst hundreds of washed up starfish. A passerby sees her throwing one of the starfish back into the sea and asks, "What are you doing?"

"I'm saving the life of this starfish," replied the little girl.

"But there are so many starfish washed up on the sand," retorted the passerby. "Surely, tossing one of them back in the water won't make a difference."

Picking up another starfish and gently lofting it into the waves, the little girl responded, "Well, it made a difference to that one!"

Yes. we're irreverant -- downright over-the-top, at times -- but would you be paying attention otherwise?

No, this isn't journalism (not even yellow). We are more National Lampoon than Wall Street Journal. Want news -- or at least editorial passing itself off as objective reporting? Pick up your local paper (or all of them, as we do). Want to make a difference in your hometown? Then start by reading these blog posts, and pass the message along that each of us, in his or her own way, can contribute to the many causes of community.

Imagine what a difference we all could make if only we were all engaged in the day-to-day life of community.

An elected official, upon reading one of our more lighthearted (if not off-the-wall) missives, commented, "You have way too much time on your hands!"

As we see it, we have way too little time.

As our quality of life slips into the abyss, taxes continue to stream into the stratosphere, our children move away because they can no longer afford to live here, we wonder just what legacy, if any, we, as community advocates and activists, will leave for the next generation of Long Islanders.

At The Community Alliance, we believe that, despite the drawbacks of inefficient and ineffective government -- local and otherwise -- and the apparent malaise of the populace, the outlook for the future is bright, and the promise of tomorrow remains for us to fulfill.

When the last blog is written and posted, left to the annals of cyberspace should some Googler of tomorrow chance upon it, let them say that those who saw community as their mission -- who embraced it as their passion -- made a difference; that our suburban way of life is just a little bit better, and that much sweeter, because of those who dared to speak out, take a stand, and stay involved.

Yes, community is our passion. Dare to make it yours!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Now Is The Time For The "Haves" To Come To The Aid Of The "Have-Nots"

New York State Is Now Among The Neediest

For as long as this blogger can remember, The New York Times Helping The Neediest campaign has offered a generous and altruistic hand up to the young, the old, the hungry, the infirm, and the downright down-on-their luck.

These days, there are more in need than ever, with millions jobless, thousands homeless, and the staggering economy on the veritable brink of the fiscal abyss.

In tough times -- and these certainly can count among the toughest -- the "haves" (who, truth be told, have a heck of a lot less than they did just a year ago), are still reaching deep down into their hearts, and into their pockets -- to help the "have-nots" (those with even less than the little or nothing they had before).

Not a hand out. The kind disingenuously sought -- and unfortunately given to -- the heretofore greed-miesters of Wall Street and Detroit. Rather, a helping hand, to see children, families, the elderly, and the truly destitute through some of the darkest financial days we have seen since the Great Depression.

Of course, its not only the individual need that comes to the fore these days, but governments, as well. Yes, those entities "of the people" are suffering [by their own hand, true, but not through waste, excess and mismanagement alone], with deficits growing and debt mounting.

Here in New York, that gap, by the latest measure, is somewhere around $15.5 billion. Yes, we said BILLION!

And who, dare we ask, would be called upon to close the gap that too few in government had been watching o'er these many decades?

Not the "haves," who, through various loopholes and favorable tax treatment, have not borne the extraordinary weight of this economic downturn as have the "have nots." No, its the "have nots" -- also known as the vanishing middle class -- who have carried upon their backs the brunt of the burden, and who are now being called upon, yet again, to pay more in fees and taxes to keep government afloat.

Should the "haves" pay more? Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, the "haves" should now pay their fair share. Yes, a fair share of the tax burden to aid our children, our families, our seniors. A fair share to allay the drastic cuts in health care, in aid to education, in public transportation, in social services. And a fair share of the tax revenues returned by Albany, not only to New York's cities, but to its suburbs, as well.

Raising taxes on the wealthy, rather than cutting expenditures to the bone and upping the ante on the middle class, would not only stimulate the economy, it would help to ease the burden of those who do not, at present, have the means to make ends meet, let alone bail out state government.

We believe that fair share tax reform is an idea whose day has come, and that Governor Paterson and the members of New York's State Legislature should embrace a tax system that requires every New Yorker to share the burden, not as a “last resort,” but as a matter of fairness and equity.

All right. We can hear the cries of "Socialism" and "spreading the wealth," the "haves" bemoaning the loss of a first-class ticket to the Caribbean while the "have-nots" struggle to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. Get over it.

When the middle class flourishes, and government is solvent, the wealthy thrive. Then again, at the moment, this rationale is beside the point. Our nation, our state, are in need, and it behooves the "haves" of our great society to come to the aid of the "have-nots."

Believe us, once prosperity is at hand -- as it will be -- the "have-nots" will once again return the favor.
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From the Op Ed pages of The New York Times:

Hard Times, a Helping Hand

Canton, Ohio

IN the weeks just before Christmas of 1933 — 75 years ago — a mysterious offer appeared in The Repository, the daily newspaper here. It was addressed to all who were suffering in that other winter of discontent known as the Great Depression. The bleakest of holiday seasons was upon them, and the offer promised modest relief to those willing to write in and speak of their struggles. In return, the donor, a “Mr. B. Virdot,” pledged to provide a check to the neediest to tide them over the holidays.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of letters for Mr. B. Virdot poured into general delivery in Canton — even though there was no person of that name in the city of 105,000. A week later, checks, most for as little as $5, started to arrive at homes around Canton. They were signed by “B. Virdot.”

The gift made The Repository’s front page on Dec. 18, 1933. The headline read: “Man Who Felt Depression’s Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families: Anonymous Giver, Known Only as ‘B. Virdot,’ Posts $750 to Spread Christmas Cheer.”

The story said the faceless donor was “a Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing” but who had returned to prosperity and now wanted to give a Christmas present to “75 deserving fellow townsmen.” The gifts were to go to men and women who might otherwise “hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.”

Whether the paper spoke to Mr. B. Virdot directly or through an intermediary or whether it received something in writing from him is not known.

Down through the decades, the identity of the benefactor remained a mystery. Three prosperous generations later, the whole affair was consigned to a footnote in Canton’s history.

But to me, the story had always served as an example of how selfless Americans reach out to one another in hard times. I can’t even remember the first time I heard about Mr. B. Virdot, but I knew the tale well.

Then, this past summer, my mother handed me a battered old black suitcase that had been gathering dust in her attic. I flipped open the twin latches and found a mass of letters, all dated December 1933. There were also 150 canceled checks signed by “B. Virdot,” and a tiny black bank book with $760 in deposits.

My mother, Virginia, had always known the secret: the donor was her father, Samuel J. Stone.

The fictitious moniker was a blend of his daughters’ names — Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. But Mother had never told me, and when she handed me the suitcase she had no idea what was in it — “some old papers,” she said. The suitcase had passed into her possession shortly after the death of my grandmother Minna in 2005.

I took the suitcase with me to our log cabin in the woods of Maine, and there, one night, began to read letter after letter. They had come from all over Canton, from out-of-work upholsterers, painters, bricklayers, day laborers, insurance salesmen and, yes, former executives — some of whom, I later learned, my grandfather had known personally.

One, written Dec. 19, 1933, begins, “I hate to write this letter ... it seems too much like begging. Anyway, here goes. I will be honest, my husband doesn’t know I’m writing this letter... . He is working but not making enough to hardly feed his family. We are going to do everything in our power to hold on to our house.” Three years behind in taxes and out of credit at the grocery store, the writer closed with, “Even if you don’t think we’re worthy of help, I hope you receive a great blessing for your kindness.”

Another letter came from a 38-year-old steel worker, out of a job and stricken with tuberculosis, who wrote of his inability to pay the hospital bills for his son, whose skull had been fractured after he was struck by a car.

One man wrote: “For one like me who for a lifetime has earned a fine living, charity by force of distressed circumstances is an abomination and a headache. However, your offer carries with it a spirit so far removed from those who offer help for their own glorification, you remove so much of the sting and pain of forced charity that I venture to tell you my story.”

The writer, once a prominent businessman, was now 65 and destitute, his life insurance policy cashed in and gone, his furniture “mortgaged,” his clothes threadbare, his hope of paying the electric and gas bills pinned to the intervention of his children.

A mother of four wrote, “My husband hasn’t had steady work in four years ... . The people who are lucky enough to have no worry where the next meal is coming from don’t realize how it is to be like we are and a lot of others... . I only wish I could do what you are doing.”

Another letter was from the wife of an out-of-work bricklayer. “Mr. Virdot, we are in desperate circumstances,” she wrote. They had taken in her husband’s mother and father and a 10-year-old boy. Now the landlord had given them three days to pay up. “It is awful,” she wrote. “No one knows, only those who go through it. It does seem so much like begging. ”

Children, too, wrote in. The youngest was 12-year-old Mary Uebing. “There are six in our family,” she wrote, “and my father is dead ... my baby sister is sick. Last Christmas our dinner was slim and this Christmas it will be slimmer... . Any way you could help us would be appreciated in this fatherless and worrisome home.”

The wife of an out-of-work insurance salesman added a postscript to her letter, one not intended for her husband’s eyes: She had just pawned her engagement ring for $5.

Also in the suitcase were thank-you letters from people who had received Mr. Virdot’s checks. A father wrote: “It was put to good use paying for two pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift.”

That was from George W. Monnot, who had once owned a successful Ford dealership but whose reluctance to lay off his salesmen hastened his own financial collapse, his granddaughter told me.

Of course, the checks could not reverse the fortunes of an entire family, much less a community. A few months after one man, Roy Teis, wrote to B. Virdot, his family splintered apart. His eight children, including a 4-year-old daughter, were scattered among nearly as many foster homes, and there they remained for years to come.

So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out. In 1902, when he was 15, he and his family had fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. They settled into an immigrant ghetto in Pittsburgh. His father forced him to roll cigars with his six other siblings in the attic, hiding his shoes so he could not go to school.

My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.

By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

His yuletide gift was not to be his only such gesture. In the same black suitcase were receipts hinting at other anonymous acts of kindness. The year before the United States entered World War II, for instance, he sent hundreds of wool overcoats to British soldiers. In the pocket of each was a handwritten note, unsigned, urging them not to give in to despair and expressing America’s support.

Like many in his generation, my grandfather believed in hard work, and disdained handouts. In 1981, at age 93, he died driving himself to the office, crashing while trying to beat a rising drawbridge. But he could never ignore the brutal reality of times when work was simply not to be had and self-reliance reached its limits. He sought no credit for acts of conscience. He saw them as the debt we owe one another and ourselves.

For many Americans, this Christmas will be grim. Here, in Ohio, food banks and shelters are trying to cope with the fallout from plant closings, layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies. The family across the street lost their home. From our breakfast table, we look out on their house, dark and vacant. Multibillion-dollar bailouts to banks and Wall Street have yet to bring relief to those humbled by need and overwhelmed by debt. Already, the B. Virdot in me — in each of us — can hear the words of our neighbors.

Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of “Nation of Secrets.”

2008 The New York Times Company

Update on Nassau County Parks from PARCnassau

Will Nassau's Parks -- Active and Passive -- Weather The Fiscal Storm?

Our friend, Bruce Piel of Park Advocacy & Recreational Council of Nassau brings us up-to-date on the year-end state of the public parks in America's oldest suburbs.

Nassau County Closing Parks

In an economic climate that makes accessible and low cost public parks more important than ever, Nassau County has decided to close its parks, ranging from 2 days a week for North Woodmere , Garvies Point, Grant Park, Old Bethpage Restoration Village, Cow Meadow, and Tackapushka, to monthly closures for Inwood, Reverend Makey, and Battle Row, among others. Other parks will have their hours reduced.

This will have two effects. First, those that need these facilities the most, the unemployed, under-employed, young families with children and fixed income seniors will lose recreation opportunities that would ease their burdens. Secondly, the only people that will enter the closed parks would be the ones we least want to see there, youths abusing alcohol and drugs, homeless and mentally disturbed who need help, drag racers, etc., etc.

Of course, the administration will blame the economy and the need to reduce costs when that same economy would argue for more open parks and recreation programs.

County Parks Losing 90 Annual Employees to Public Works

Effective January 2, 2009, all remaining maintenance employees will be transferred from the park system to DPW reducing the remaining employees to approximately 163 to report to the 12 or so Deputy Commissioners or equivalents giving them a “span of control” of about 14 to 1. That ratio can usually be found between workers and first line supervisors everywhere else.

Though the county insists the transferees will still be handling park tasks, the reality will be, parks will be at the “bottom of the food chain” when requesting their services. This is what happened when the rangers were renamed public safety transferred to the police department and when the Parks electrical, plumbing and carpentry shops were transferred to DPW.

County Hiring Part Time & Seasonal Cashiers To Work In Parks

These new positions will not report to Park Directors but be responsible to the County Treasurer ’s Office. Thus they can’t be used when not collecting money. Why aren’t they continuing to use current part time and seasonal employees? Allegedly, because they do not have the necessary skills. Before hiring a part timer or seasonal employee why doesn't the county test them for cashier skills (its called arithmetic) giving parks capable workers that can be used for other tasks as well?


While our county executive campaigns for an appointment to State or Federal Office our County parks continue their downward spiral with no end in sight. Had enough? Email, call or write to your county legislator and demand adequate personnel, equipment and supplies to keep our county parks alive. Our parks need this and we need our parks.

Bruce Piel
Park Advocacy & Recreation Council of Nassau (PARCnassau)
246 Twin Lane East
Wantagh , NY 11793
(516) 783-8378
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While the views expressed by Mr. Piel on behalf of PARCnassau are his own, we cannot help but wonder why Nassau County's parks, in good financial times and bad, appear to be the step-child of the county.

Back in the day when the county's coffers were overflowing (read as, the county was borrowing far beyond its means to repay), the parks were neglected. And when the bottom fell out of the county's finances? Well, we all see the results -- parks that lack adequate, if any, maintenance, rapidly decaying infrastructure, and former open/green spaces that have literally gone to seed, our tax dollars paid toward Parks & Recreation (or so it says on that tax statement), notwithstanding.

And by the way, whatever happened to the rehab and revitalization work that was to be done in our county parks -- active and passive -- with monies from the two multi-million dollar environmental bond acts? Just where did that bond money go?

Now is not the time to abandon our public parks, or, for that matter, to forgo public works projects which can create jobs and stimulate the economy. Indeed, now, more than ever, America's first suburb needs to reinvest in itself, using its vast resources, from the nature of its once magnificent parks to the nurture of its always high-spirited people, to reinvent suburbia.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Chock Full of Cuts (Loaded with Fees and Taxes)

A Budget Only A Millionaire's Money Could Buy

But not to worry, millionaires of New York, Governor Paterson has no designs on your money, and no proposal in his 2009-10 budget to raise income taxes on those earning the big bucks to help close a record $15 billion deficit.

No, rather than to tax the high and mighty, those who could actually afford to hold the line and bear just a bit more of the economic burden in these difficult times -- the Guv has raised the ante on everything from gasoline and clothing to tuition at the already cash-strapped State University, looking, yet again, to the beleagured middle class (whoever they were, and wherever they have disappeared to) to shoulder the burden.

Cuts to health care, public transit, and state aid to public schools. Taxes on health care and haircuts. Increased fees on movies and motor vehicles.

"Hey, Governor Paterson. How'd you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?" Opps. There'll be a tax on that, too!

One Long Island Assemblyman, Tom Alfano of the 21st AD, takes a hard look at how the Governor's proposed budget will impact on John Q. New Yorker. Alfano likens the Governor's cut and tax assault to "declaring war on middle class families," and calls the proposed budget "an economic apocalypse."

It isn't pretty, folks. And it certainly isn't fair to the vast majority of New Yorkers, already suffering one of the highest tax burdens in the nation, let alone to Long Islanders, who, if they're lucky, see only 25 cents of every tax dollar paid to Albany returned to the island -- and that's in good times.

So go ahead, Governor Paterson. Hike the tax on our cable bill and soda pop. Shortchange our children and our seniors through cuts to education and health care. Increase those local property taxes through the backdoor (while localities do likewise through the front) by reducing STAR benefits and state aid to public schools.

After all, we're New Yorkers. We can take it. Though rest assured, Governor Paterson, we will not take it lying down!
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New Yorkers are urged to contact their State lawmakers in Albany (who will take up Governor Paterson's executive budget in January) to express their outrage over the Governor's proposed cuts, fees, and taxes.

NY State Senate

NY State Assembly
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Says the 137 tax and fee increases in Governor Paterson’s budget are like “declaring war” on New York’s middle class families

Characterizing it as a “gut punch” to Long Island’s middle class already hurting from a terrible economy, home foreclosures and loss of real wages, Assemblyman Tom Alfano today warned that the 137 tax and fee increases within Governor Paterson’s 2009-10 Executive Budget will cost the average New York family an extra $3,875.48 annually.

The analysis found that Governor Paterson’s 137 tax and fee increases – imposed on everything from digital music downloads to soda – could potentially lead to the loss of one-in-ten jobs. That impact to the local economy has legislators like Assemblyman Tom Alfano calling for the Governor to redouble his efforts toward economic development and to stop the outrageous tax and fee plans that will further damage the local economy.

“These 137 tax and fee increases sought by the Governor means he is digging even deeper into the pockets of middle class families, many of whom are suffering from lay-offs, foreclosures and businesses closing. His tax and fee hikes send absolutely the worst possible message for middle class families who are losing their jobs, losing their houses and seeing their incomes and home values decline,” Alfano said.

“Families are cutting back, making sacrifices and now the Governor would take even more. The bottom line is that this budget will only prolong the recession. All these tax and fee hikes are like declaring war on seniors and families,” Alfano stated.

The following are some of the products and services Governor Paterson’s Executive Budget would raise taxes or fees on: cable and satellite television; pay per view movies; cigars; discount coupons; haircuts; beauty salons; health clubs; weight loss programs; fishing; camping; malt-flavored beverages; digital music downloads; drinks from non-diet soda to Gatorade, Hawaiian Punch and Hi-C; beer; wine; car rentals; limousine services; taxis; movies; health insurance; seed dealers; parents of children with special needs; boilers; explosives; horse entrance fees; sporting events; gasoline; clothing; jewelry; footwear; automobile purchases; registration and driving fees.

According to Stephen Kagann, former state chief economist, every $100 million in new taxes imposed during a recession leads to a loss of 11,400 private sector jobs. Governor Paterson’s tax and fee hikes total $6 billion, meaning a loss of 600,000 jobs. When added to the administration’s forecast of 180,000 jobs expected to be lost in 2009, it is a very real possibility that one-in-ten jobs in New York State could be threatened. “When you look at these statistics, and the impact of this budget, you come to the easy conclusion that this budget isn’t just doomsday – it’s an economic apocalypse,” Alfano concluded.
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2009-10 Executive Budget Impact on a Family of Four
Proposed Initiative Family Impact

Environmental Protection
Groceries - Expanded Bottle Bill $73.00

Health, Department
Covered Lives Assessment $73.00

Higher Education
Tuition Increase at SUNY and Campus fees $720.00
Loss of TAP eligibility due to new minimum 15 credit per semester requirement $755.00

Motor Vehicles
Increased registration, plate, document and photo fees $130.00
New requirement - Drivers Education Class before permit $450.00 Personal Income Tax

Tax filers (paper filers) $20.00

Parks and Recreation
Golfing Fee $25.00
Park Admissions Fee Increase $20.00

Real Property Tax
Increase of property taxes as a result of reductions in school aid & AIM and 5-yr average property tax increase (7.99%). $558.00
Elimination of Middle Class STAR Rebate Checks $386.00 Increase Traditional STAR "floor" from 11 to 18 percent $40.00

Sales and Use Taxes
Cable and Satellite Sales Tax (Cable and On-Demand Movies) $88.23
Tobacco & Cigar Reclassification $5.00
Discount Coupon Sales Tax $50.00
Clothing Sales Tax Repeal $160.00
Miscellaneous New Taxed Services (Barber Shops, Salons, gyms, etc.) $45.00
Flavored Malt Beverage Tax $5.00
Prepaid Cigarette Sales Tax Increase $2.92
Digital Products Sales Tax $16.00
Motor & Diesel Fuel Tax Cap Repeal $25.00
Soda & Beverage Sales Tax $122.29
Excise Tax on Beer & Wine $13.13
Auto Rental Tax $2.08
Additional Sales Tax on Transportation (Limos, Taxis and Chartered Services) $12.50
Sales Tax on Amusements (Movies, Sporting Events, etc.) $40.00

Capital Improvement Restrictions $33.33

State Police
Motor Vehicle Law Enforcement Fee $5.00

Grand Total: $3,875.48

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Smart Growth" Comes To Long Island?

If Its Written In The New York Times, It Must Be True!

"Smart Growth."

A new (or not so new -- it actually dates back to the 1970s), much discussed (even on this blog), highly-touted vision for the development -- and revitalization -- of the urban landscape, as well as suburbia (such that it is), embracing the concepts of walkable downtowns, mixed-use, transit-oriented, high-density, affordable housing, and the reversal of the strip-mall mentality that has given rise to the sprawling of America.

The New York Times featured an article on various projects underway (or soon to be) here on Long Island that, at least in theory, fall under the umbrella of "Smart Growth," this in a region that, but for eastern Suffolk County, is pretty much built out, where growth -- begun with a spurt in the late 1940s -- has been anything but smart, and planning/zoning are as an anathema.

Indeed, notwithstanding the nominal existence of a regional planning and county planning boards -- where Master Plans apparently go to die -- Long Island has, over the past half century, been witness to what can be best categorized as haphazard development, seemingly bereft of any real or functional plans, other than those long ago shelved and collecting dust in the belly of the archives.

Zoning, left mainly to the Towns, has, until recently, been "wink and nod," build it any way you want, building code excepted, creating a hodge podge along "Main Street" that resembles the work of Dr. Frankenstein.

Having been hoisted on their own petard -- viewing the now crumbling and outmoded "downtowns" of Long Island's towns and hamlets for the barren wastelands they have become -- local zoning boards, often sitting as planning boards, are picking up the mantra of "Smart Growth," even where their newly-found enthusiasm for "getting it right" merely masquerades as "smart," and whose "plans," on the heels of "blight studies," are too often paraded down "Main Street" as ersatz "renewal."

Where America's oldest suburb cries out for the creation of a true, workable Master Plan, in draftsmanship and execution, "Smart Growth" appears to be gaining hold but piecemeal, in drips and drabs, and with great reluctance on the part of localities -- namely the townships -- to abandon the arcane and archaic in favor of the future.

A spot build here and a nod to "Smart Growth" there. Very little in the way of a comprehensive plan that would take Long Island, still mired in the 1950s, with a mall and sprawl mentality -- and a decaying infrastructure to show for it -- into the 21st Century.

Well, at least its a start!
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From The New York Times:

‘Smart Growth’ Takes Hold


TYPICALLY, apartments around here aren’t any more than two stories high. But off Middle Country Road, Avalon Charles Pond is a symbol of the future. Its three and a half stories will house 200 one- and two-bedroom luxury rentals.

The new nine-building development represents the new era of so-called smart growth projects on the Island. “Eventually this will be the center of Coram; this will be the hub,” said Connie Kepert, a Brookhaven councilwoman, envisioning more mixed-use development with retailing on the first floor and apartments or offices above. She contrasted this vision of Coram to “traditional downtowns” like Northport and Patchogue.

In years past, developments that put homes, workplaces and services closer together were often viewed askance. But in the last year, a number of higher-density projects have won the approval of civic associations and elected officials.

Some are mixed-use projects; others are transit-oriented developments; many incorporate ecologically sensitive elements. Each with at least 150 units and up to nine stories tall, they reduce hodgepodge sprawl and include more concentrated, vertical residential design, yet aren’t so massive that they loom over their neighbors.

Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth planning group, said that in the last year approvals had been issued for a number of developments in addition to Avalon Charles Pond, which is developed by AvalonBay Communities.

Other projects, either new or close to fruition, include: a nine-story condominium in Mineola called the Winston; the Village Center in Islandia, a mixed-use development with hotels, residential condominiums, retailing and office space, and a plaza built on 12.6 vacant acres; a 349-unit transit-oriented apartment project by AvalonBay in Rockville Centre; and two projects by the Atlanta-based Trammel Crow Residential, one in downtown Hempstead Village and the other in West Hempstead.

“It is this oddball combination of higher density and community support” that has until recently been “antithetical to the perception of density and development on the Island,” Mr. Alexander said. “With the right locations and the right types of projects and the right type of process you can get positive results.”

He also pointed out that these alternative approaches to development are “market-viable projects in an economic downturn.”Early this month, after a 15-year effort to shutter the Courtesy Hotel — a locus of crime in West Hempstead — the Nassau County Planning Board took a major step toward that goal by giving Trammel Crow Residential the go-ahead to use the site for the Alexan at West Hempstead Station.

Rosalie Norton, president of the West Hempstead Civic Association, said the 150-unit Alexan would fulfill “a desperate need for housing” and draw more riders to the train, while “not destroying the suburban character of our community.”

She added that the commercial setting of the project — by the West Hempstead station of the Long Island Rail Road but “more than 200 feet away from residential homes” — was “a classic example of the right location.” The rental apartments have “so many positive aspects,” she concluded, that “the fear of the ‘what ifs’ suddenly stops.”

Kathleen P. Murray, the Hempstead town supervisor, said the project was approved once the developer reduced the number of units to 150 from 225 — which had been “very significantly over what was allowable.” An extra acre of adjacent land, which the railroad agreed to sell to the town for $1, has also helped ease concerns about density. The acre, now untended asphalt, will be redone as open green space.

As for the Islandia Village Center, Mr. Alexander says its planned location in an office corridor “sets an example of mixed-use development that has never occurred on the Island.”

Joseph Prokop, the lawyer for the Village of Islandia, said a new zoning district was created last month for the project. It is to include a seven-story 175-room hotel and a three-story 100-room hotel, as well as an eight-story 150-unit condo tower, two restaurants, a 31,000-square-foot two-story building with retail and office space, and a plaza with a built-in amphitheater and park benches.

Then there is the Winston in Mineola, a nine-story 285-condo development planned for Old Country Road, a block from the Mineola station. It received unanimous village board approval in February, despite its height.

The developer, Vincent Polimeni, said he “went in aggressively with a nine-story building, which is unheard of on Long Island.”

Normally, he said, “I get yelled at.” But in this case he got “a standing ovation,” he said, for the one, two and three-bedroom condominiums, which will average $450,000.

The redevelopment, on the site of former office buildings, got this positive reception because it stands to help cope with an influx of empty nesters and first nesters, and to generate income for the school district. Mr. Polimeni is also providing lower-cost housing in a separate building two blocks away.

Neal Lewis, the executive director of the Long Island Neighborhood Network, an environmental and civic advocacy group, said it was important to move away from “just immediately opposing projects if it is more than three stories or if it is more than 10 units to an acre.”

“Those kinds of standards have been a real impediment to trying to address the need for affordable housing and the need to have vibrant downtowns,” Mr. Lewis said.

With the right design, the proper location and community engagement, he added, “there is more public receptivity to projects that might have been considered high-density and might have been dead on arrival in past years.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Friday, December 12, 2008

Too Much Local Government?

Now Where Have We heard That Before?

Perhaps we should call this post, Dissolve Two Special Districts And Call Us In The Millennium.

It was just about a year ago that we pondered, on this very blog, whether we would be here this time, this year, asking if our property taxes are lower, or whether local government has somehow become more "efficient."

Well, here we are, a year hence, and few can say that the property tax bill has gone down (or even held its ground), or that local services, for which we pay top dollar, are operating with the honed efficiency of a beaver.

No, notwithstanding the findings of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness (yes, yes, a blatant misnomer, we know), and the recently issued final report of the NYS Commission on Property Tax Relief, we appear to be no closer -- in terms of legislative action or real life solutions that translate into tax savings -- to practical resolution, than we were last year, or, for that matter, the year before that.

We certainly knew what the problems were -- or had a very good inkling -- well before the powers-that-be decided to commission high profile studies, hearings, and reports. Why, even we, at this lonely outpost of community, had spelled out the shortcomings of bloated local governments, with tentacles that held forth waste, redundancy, patronage, and greed as if the holy grail.

As for the solutions, well, who would have ever thought? Cut, consolidate, cap. Gee whiz, what a brainstorm. And how much, in taxpayer dollars, did it cost John Q. Public to reach that conclusion?

Of course, don't cut in our districts, or dare to even talk of consolidation. That's for someone else. And while a cap may look nice on the other fella's head, it does absolutely nothing to lower property taxes.

Not to worry, though. Those three men in that room up in Albany -- whoever those three men may be, come January -- aren't very likely to take (much less agree upon) any meaningful action which would result in cutting, consolidating, or, heaven forbid, eliminating the "too much local government" that now exists under the guise of "local control."

After all, if they couldn't muster the votes to do anything that amounts to property tax relief this year -- when the entire state legislature was up for grabs -- what hope is there for next year, when no one is running, and even fewer are watching? [Then again, what better time for action?]

Which brings us to the latest county to be heard from, or in this case, State official.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (the man who would be Hillary Clinton, if the fates and Governor Patterson allow -- Damn you, Caroline Kennedy!) has proposed legislation that would permit the voters -- that's you and I, folks -- to trigger a process that would require other local governments (i.e., Towns) to either eliminate or consolidate smaller local governments (i.e., Sanitary Districts).

Yeah, right. Like the electorate wants to get involved. Collect 5000 signatures? Okay, we can do that. Actually come out to vote? You must be kidding.

In theory, the AG, as with others before him, has the right idea. To serve the people (no, its not a cookbook) is what government is for, after all. So why not let the people decide which local taxing districts (or townships, for that matter) stay, go, or consolidate.

Because they won't. Waiting for the will of the people to translate into a groundswell of support (let alone to trigger action from the masses) is like waiting for Godot. No matter the impact on the wallet, or even the prospect of losing one's own home in the face of skyrocketing property taxes, inertia rules the day.

Besides, isn't acting in the best interests of we, the people, what voters elected folks like the Attorney General and our State Legislators for in the first place?

We sent you to Albany to lower property taxes, among other minutia that you haven't quite gotten too. You have been elected to act on our collective behalf, and empowered by law, and a mandate that more than suggests that without measurable property tax relief, your tax base may very well vote -- with their feet!

Given the realities of fiscal crises, nearly insurmountable deficits, and a legacy of dysfunction that is New York's State Legislature, don't hold your breath for much in the way of real property tax relief anytime soon.

Oh, there will be tough talk from government leaders. Proposals that promise a lower tax bill, more efficient government, and an end to the ways of too many hands in the proverbial pot. Still, don't be surprised if, come this time, next year, we're here asking, "Are your property taxes lower today than they were a year ago?"

With County and Town taxes for 2009 already set to rise, and special district taxes -- from sanitation to schools -- likely to follow suit in the face of significantly less aid from state and municipal government, the bottom line for property taxes can be forecast in terms of the Empire State's motto, Excelsior -- Ever Upward!

From Newsday:

Cuomo: "10,521 governments" too many
State attorney general proposes making it easier to consolidate or dissolve local governments


ALBANY - Describing the number of local governments in the state as "out of control," New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo Thursday unveiled a plan to reduce the number and cost of local governments to ease what is the highest property tax burden in the country.

"When people are cutting back on their Christmas presents, they're not going to let you waste their tax dollars," he told a standing-room-only crowd of politicians and good-government advocates at an Albany news conference.

A byzantine patchwork of laws makes it nearly impossible to consolidate or dissolve small units of local government - largely, Cuomo said, because politicians want to protect their own bureaucracies and patronage jobs."10,521 governments," he said, referring to the total number of local governments his office has counted statewide. "That's a lot of jobs, that's a lot of patronage jobs, that's a lot of bureaucracy."

Cuomo is proposing a single statute that would set up a process by which voters within the districts could dissolve them. Studies have shown that this measure can save taxpayers from 5 percent to 22 percent on local property tax bills.

Cuomo said his office will work with state legislators in drafting a bill. Although he declined to speculate on legislators' reaction to such a reform, Cuomo said in a later interview with Newsday, "When I do a bill, I actually want to pass it."

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who sits on the Assembly's Committee on Local Governments, lauded Cuomo's effort as "the right thing to do."

"Long Island suffers especially as a result of these hundreds of fiefdoms," he said. "These are anomalies, they are throwbacks to a bygone era. We don't have to operate government on a 19th-century model."

New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli agreed. "New York cannot keep doing business as usual because we don't have the dollars to pay for business as usual," he said in a statement.

Officials from the Long Island Water Conference, which represents independent water districts, released a statement agreeing with the idea of simplifying the law, but adding, "The key is to follow the will of the public. Any effort to combine governments must come from the people not the politicians."

The attorney general's office began researching the issue months ago after undertaking its investigation into private lawyers on public payrolls, which was prompted by Newsday stories.

Cuomo said investigators were stunned by the maze of local governments scattered throughout the state, as well as the waste and abuse, also reported in Newsday.

Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, who joined Cuomo at his announcement of the initiative, said such a reform would "empower the taxpayers on Long Island."

Weitzman has proposed allowing the Town of Hempstead to take over the independent garbage districts in the town. If that happened, he said, it would save taxpayers about $20 million, or about $200 per year per homeowner.

Cuomo's proposed reform would provide citizens seeking to dissolve or consolidate a local government a uniform three-step process to do so.

First, they would have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the voters who voted in the previous gubernatorial election, or 5,000 people, whichever is less. If successful, that would then trigger a vote. If passed, the local governing body would have a year to complete consolidation or dissolution.

That came as welcome news to Rosalie Hanson, a civic activist in Gordon Heights, where residents have tried unsuccessfully to dissolve their fire district, only to be rebuffed on technical grounds. Gordon Heights pays the highest fire taxes in the state, with an average of $1,500 per homeowner.

"What's the purpose of government," she said, "if not to serve the people?"

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Who's Watching The Special Taxing Districts?

You Should be!
Special District Elections Set For Tuesday, December 9th

Those Special Taxing Districts (you know, the ones that pick your pockets like the medieval fiefdoms of yore picked peasants off the land), operating under the guise of "local control," will hold elections for commissioners this coming Tuesday, December 9th.

Check out Newsday's interactive page for information on the Special District elections where you live.

Most elections, it would appear, are uncontested. No surprise, really, for despite all the hubbub about waste and greed among the Special Districts -- from State Commission Reports to extensive coverage in the local press -- few residents (the folks who actually pay the bills) actually bother to vote.

While you don't typically get to have your say on who is running most Special Districts (such as lighting, parking, sewer, and the like), or how money is appropriated, with respect to Water and Fire Districts -- much like the School Districts (which themselves account for upwards of 60% of the property tax tab on Long Island) -- YOU can (and should) stick in your 2 cents.

With bank accounts continuing to dwindle, jobs disappearing, and everyone -- from GM to NY State -- looking to reach into your wallet for a "bailout," your vigilance, and participation in the process that keeps representative government representative, is more important than ever.

On Tuesday, December 9th, show those who run the Special Taxing Districts -- and, too often, run away with your tax dollars -- that you're watching. VOTE!