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.

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