Thursday, January 31, 2008

Suozzi Commission Takes On "Stark Challenge"

Commisssion Outlines Agenda; Public Meetings To Follow

The work of the NYS Property Tax Commission has just begun, and already the opposition is lining up with elephant guns to shoot ducks in a barrel.

Just look at the headlines, and you will find more self-interest groups nixing plans that have yet to be put on the table than there have been ideas floated to fix the property tax problem.

The New York State School Boards Association, for instance, has said that the property tax cap, as proposed by Commission Chair Tom Suozzi and now supported by Governor Spitzer, would "harm schools."

The teachers' union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), a powerful special interest in Albany, has been described as "leary" of efforts to impose a cap.

Even county executives and local politicos have expressed concern, if not doubt, that a tax cap is the way to stifle what has become the exponential growth of the school property tax, and are said to be "cool" on the Commission's efforts.

So where does that leave us, other than with property taxes continuing to spiral out of control?

How do we stem the tide of tax and spend, without jeopardizing our children's education?

Where do we cut? Who will get less? How can we effectively consolidate services to eliminate costs?

Are caps effective means of controlling spending, and therefore, limiting the annual increase in the property tax, or are they merely stop-gap measures (or less than that, for the property tax will still be heading upward, year after year, not decreasing), that, as a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded, are "likely to impair local governments’ ability to provide education, public safety, and other services residents demand and need," and "likely to make the local revenue system more regressive?"

Would shifting the burden of school spending from a regressive property tax to a progressive income tax (either a local income tax, or as part and parcel of the State income tax) be more palatable, if not palliative?

Are we simply looking to treat the symptoms, or will we be working toward a cure?

Surely, the Suozzi Commission will be asking all of these questions and more, considering options and, hopefully, offering practical, doable, and legislatively acceptable solutions.

The Commisiion will call for public comment, and for the ideas and suggestions of those who actually foot the bill -- New York's property tax payers; predominantly homeowners who bear the burden, and now, must share the responsibility in getting New York out of this awful mess.

So, what's your opinion? How best can we, as New Yorkers, not only keep the school property tax in check, but lower (or, dare we say, eliminate) the school property tax, while, at the same time, maintaining schools of excellence and a system of education that prepares every child to meet the challenges of our 21st century?

A stark challenge, indeed.

Have ideas, thoughts, a property tax plan of your own? Write us at
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Suozzi: Tax panel faces "stark challenge"


The state commission formed to curb property taxes faces "a stark challenge," and will hold five meetings in the coming months to address the issue, the panel chairman said yesterday.

The chairman, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, made his remarks during a 75-minute organizational meeting of the New York State Property Tax Commission at the governor's offices in Manhattan.

A briefing book distributed to the commission members outlined the scope of the problem, and set broad goals: create a package of reforms for legislative approval, identify the best taxing practices for school district, and "design an intelligent cap" on property taxes.

The book cited Tax Foundation documents that identified 2000 as the "turning point," when property taxes nationwide began to increase faster than personal income.

From 1992 to 2000, personal income rose 5.7 percent annually while property taxes grew 4.2 percent; from 2000 to 2004, personal income rose 3.7 percent while property taxes rose 6.2 percent, the briefing book said.

At the state level, property taxes have risen faster than the national average for the past decade, the book said, while personal income grew about five percent statewide, but at a lesser rate downstate."This is the stark challenge the commission faces - to address accelerating growth rates or property taxes in the face of personal income growth...," the briefing book released by Suozzi said.

Suozzi said the commission would hold an additional five meetings -- on Feb. 12, March 5 and 26 and April 10 and 23 -- to take testimony from citizens and citizen groups. He said the panel would submit preliminary recommendations on May 15 and a final report by Dec. 1.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Suozzi on Jan. 9 to chair the commission, and formally signed the executive order creating the commission on Jan. 23.

Other members of the commission include Shirley Strum Kenny, president of Stony Brook University; labor lawyer and political insider Basil Paterson, father of the lieutenant governor, and former Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro.Newsday Reporter William Murphy contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Terror On Terrace Avenue

Tenants Look To Take Back Crime Ridden/Drug Riddled Neighborhood With Assistance Of County And State

When one hears the words "Terrace Avenue" in the Village of Hempstead in the news, its typically about drug related activity, or the violent attack of neighbor against neighbor.

With a history of failing schools, gang and sundry street violence, and the notorious open-air sale of drugs, Hempstead has been on a steady downward spiral, its days as the hub of Nassau County giving way to a host of socio-economic woes.

Now, the residents of Terrace Avenue -- long known as the epicenter of drugs and violence in the village -- backed by the Nassau County District Attorney's office, County Exec Tom Suozzi, Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall, and myriad community leaders and organizations, are intent on taking back not only Terrace Avenue, but the village that encompasses it.

A plan is now in place, based on a North Carolina model, offering a better deal to those known to deal in drugs -- often the underpinning of violence along the Avenue: Turn away from the illegal drug trade and avoid arrest and prosecution, and take advantage of job training, employment placement or a GED program.

Whether this stick and carrot approach will meet with success remains to be seen. It appears to have made a world of difference in places like High Point, NC, where drugs and violence had taken over the town's west end.

Certainly, this proactive plan, combined with other anti-crime initiatives, such as the DA's Gunstoppers program, is worth a try.

The benefits of taking back Terrace Avenue, ridding the community of drugs and drug related crime, enure not only to Hempstead Village and neighboring communities, but to all of Nassau County, and to society as a whole.

After all, replacing drugs and crime with education and opportunity elevates every one of us, and not only saves untold lives -- of both victims and perpetrators -- but hundreds of thousands in tax dollars otherwise earmarked for prosecution, incarceration, and attempting to stymie a community's economic decline simply by throwing money at the problem.
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From Newsday:

Terrace Ave. residents have long lived with crime

Every time Harold Humdy Sr. leaves his Hempstead apartment complex for work or for a trip to the store, he walks past the spot where his only son and namesake was gunned down.

Known as "Hen-Rock" around the neighborhood, Harold Humdy Jr., 23, was a convicted drug dealer known to treat kids on Terrace Avenue to ice cream on hot summer days. In April 2004, he was shot once in the back during an afternoon robbery as he stood on the corner."I was sleeping and dreamed my son had been shot," Humdy, 59, said. "When I awoke, someone told me he was. I thought I was still dreaming."

Humdy's pain, and his memory of loss, is a shared one, as violence is a part of the collective fabric of Terrace Avenue.

"You can't live on Terrace and say you haven't been affected by violence," said Barry Johnson, 21, who lives at 100 Terrace Ave. "My father was shot [and killed] in the building when I was 2. I saw my friend get killed. Living on Terrace, you feel like you've lived a long time."

They've lived a long time with violent crime, an inevitable byproduct of the crack trade that exploded in the 1980s. Earlier this month, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice offered the Terrace Bedell Initiative to eradicate the drug market for good. The program, which offers nonviolent drug dealers a one-time pass if they go straight, has had an immediate effect and residents almost invariably support it, along with other initiatives that have improved the area and lowered some crimes in recent years. Still, neighbors used to short-term fixes are wary of saying their problems are solved. Residents - who in years past nicknamed the block, between Jackson and Bedell streets, "Terror Avenue" - speak of the past with exasperated weariness and the future with guarded hope.

"So much has happened. ... We had three people that were buried right next to each other, like they died one right after the other," said Inez Dingle, president of the Progressive Tenants Association. "But a lot of that stuff, I try not to even think back to; I blocked it out. It was happening so fast. ... I think the people are tired of the conditions and all the lives that have been messed up."

On that one block in the past five years, five people have been killed on Terrace Avenue, according to Village of Hempstead statistics. Over the same period on that same block, there were 55 robberies and 88 assaults. Since 2005, most major crimes are down, though the street, just blocks from the Hempstead train station and downtown, has accounted for almost half the village's murders in some years and 15 percent of assaults in others. The heart of the quarter-mile stretch is the six-story Jackson Terrace apartment complex, where Johnson, Humdy and some 1,500 other working-class residents, mostly women and children, live in subsidized apartments. The 417-unit complex, with its green awnings and windows that overlook smaller apartment buildings near vacant lots, is just off a commercial strip, about a block from an African-American history museum.

When it opened in 1972, it was called The El Dorado. Then, 100 Terrace Ave. was a prestigious address. Now, with its open air drug market, shootings and history of brazen homicides, it is an address synonymous with crime. Metal signs urging residents to "Help Fight the War Against Drugs" dot lampposts.

Police Officer Marlon Bottoms, a 12-year veteran of the Village of Hempstead Police Department, patrolled Terrace Avenue and is part of a recent effort to clean it up for good. He remembered the last moments of a dealer caught by the violence.

"Instead of him running from me, he needed me. I held his hand. He was gasping for air," he said. "Drug dealers don't see this side - what it is to be a victim. They're putting drugs in someone's system, selling it to kids and doing something that affects the whole community."

Jackson Terrace, an E-shaped building that fills the block, has three sections, 18 stairwells and covers 400,000 square feet. The Bedell Street side is closest to the center of drug activity. Rampant drug activity was once routine inside.

"I remember you couldn't go out without seeing people laying in doorways, just cracked out," said Danielle Lombardo, 23. "The drugs, the violence, the gunshots, the crackheads, I've seen it my entire life." Lombardo listed four people she knew who were killed near 100 Terrace Ave., including Humdy Jr.

"They called me when I was on my way to the mall," she said. "They said, 'Hen-Rock just got shot and he's lying on the floor. We think he's dead.'"

"It was so scary, I wouldn't even go there to cop drugs," said Gina Grafton, a self-described former crack addict who now lives at 100 Terrace Ave. "If I had to end up going there, I just wouldn't get high that night."

Tenants' den mother

Inside, low ceilings, narrow hallways and off-white walls give the complex a barren, stripped-down feel, even though it is at full occupancy.

Dingle, a registered nurse who acts as a den mother to tenants, has lived at 100 Terrace Ave. for almost three decades. She said her home has climbed peaks and plumbed valleys. For years, the complex was poorly managed and fed-up residents formed the Progressive Tenants Association in the mid-1980s to push for changes, Dingle said. Heat and hot water worked off and on, there were no doorknobs, locks or insulation. And crack was king.

"There was a lot of drug dealing going on, there were frequent fires, the elevators were broken," said Peter Florey, the new owner, who began working in management at 100 Terrace Ave. in 1990. "It was in pretty bad shape and it had been written off by the community."

With $500,000 in federal grants, stronger doors, 30 cameras and a full-time security staff were put in place from 1999 to 2003. The property eventually changed hands and the steady complaints of tenants, who had taken to patrolling the building with baseball bats and screwdrivers, led to major changes.

Florey took over in December 2006 and invested $8 million. Cameras now number 220 and recessed lighting has been replaced with fluorescent lights in every hallway. There are new bathrooms, kitchens and floors.

Others have pitched in to help the community. Over the years, charities and churches have donated food and clothing, and organized after-school activities. With a grant from the state's parks department, the village upgraded playground equipment at a nearby park last year. An in-house after-school tutoring program for elementary students began in the fall. And during the last three years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into the area to increase police patrols in the evenings and in the summer. But the drug trade - and its associated crime - has proved to be stubborn. It simply moved from the hallways to the street out front.

"My daughter has called me to the window plenty of times when they are out there smoking crack," said Grafton, a housekeeper, as she looked out her window. "But we pretty much stay away from the window because bullets fly, they fly low, they fly high."

Numb to the gunfire

Several residents said gunshots come as often as every other day, so often that some are numb to it, yet they know what to do when the bullets fly.

"I run into the middle of the apartment towards the door and away from the windows," said Malik, Grafton's 11-year-old son. "Sometimes my sister runs to the window, but I pull her back."

Yet - even amid the intractable drug problem traced to a few, but affecting everyone who lives on Terrace Avenue - tenants kept pushing for something new, Dingle said.

So, finally, at a community meeting on Dec. 27, Dingle had a message for the tenants she has led and suffered with over these last years.

"Yesterday is gone. We can't relive it. Let's start with today and move forward," she said then.

"Come Jan. 8, we are going to shut this entire area up."

The way forward is a two-pronged, full-court-press approach to the problem modeled on an earlier project developed by a professor now at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It was based on a yearlong investigation into drug activity in the area. Community leaders, Mayor Wayne Hall, the Nassau district attorney's office, County Executive Thomas Suozzi, preachers and social service organizations teamed up to offer a deal to suspected drug dealers - go straight, with considerable help, or go to jail.

And Village of Hempstead police posted round-the-clock patrols, financed by Rice's office with seized funds. "The game doesn't stop unless you get caught or end up dead," said Maurice Gilreath, a convicted drug dealer who accepted Rice's deal. "I would be doing what I was doing before if I didn't have the program."

When Gilreath, along with 12 other suspected drug offenders, walked into a packed community meeting Jan. 8, so familiar were their faces and activities that tenants called them by name as they viewed footage of undercover drug buys.

"That's John."

"That's Hannah."

"That's 100 Terrace, you can tell by the cabinets."

On a recent evening, three police cars were on the block, and the only activity Grafton could see from her window was a police officer with a flashlight checking an alleyway.

"These corners belong to the kids and we've got to get those corners back so they can play basketball, hopscotch and jump rope - the things they enjoy," said Bottoms. "If you don't clean up the corners, kids are going to use them to sell drugs."

Teddy Johnson, 47, is raising his son at 100 Terrace Ave., where he has lived for three decades. He talked about the shootings, the fights and the drug-dealing he has seen over the years and wanting something different for his family.

As his son, Keiwan, 14, jumped off the school bus, Johnson looked around at the empty corners, taking in what he saw and wondering about what lies ahead.

"It's quiet right now, but how long?"


The police officer, Marlon Bottoms
(Referring to the victim of a drive-by shooting)
"Instead of him running from me, he needed me. I held his hand. He was gasping for air. ... Drug dealers don't see this side - what it is to be a victim."

The tenant leader, Inez DinglePresident, Progressive Tenants Association
"The entire block was prestige, not just this building. But then it started to deteriorate and I had a struggle with the owners to make it better. There was an open-air drug market, all types of cars coming in and out, so much has happened over the years."

The resident, Barry Johnson, 21
"You can't live on Terrace and say you haven't been affected by violence. My father was shot [and killed] in the building in the basement when I was 2. I saw my friend get killed ... we were outside and it was during the day and the dude saw him on the block and ran up on him. I saw it when he dropped. I was young, in the sixth or seventh grade. I was hurt, that was like my brother. That broke me down."

The convicted drug dealer, Maurice Gilreath, 26,
"I've been in the game since I was a little kid, I've seen it since I was a little kid. It's always been around me. I never thought that I would do it but I ran into hard times and in hard times you have to adapt to what you know. ... The game doesn't stop unless you get caught or end up dead. I would be doing what I was doing before, if I didn't have the program."


Nassau County prosecutors had identified Terrace Avenue and Bedell Street in Hempstead Village as the county's worst open-air drug market. In 2007, police conducted a long-term investigation there. After making arrests, drug trafficking continued. Prosecutors concluded the traditional "buy-and-bust" tactics weren't working.

Looking for a solution, police considered alternatives to making arrests, like shutting down streets to disrupt the drug market.After a tenants' meeting at 100 Terrace Ave., police and prosecutors reached out to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

There they found professor David Kennedy, who steered police through an award-winning initiative that had given a second chance to drug dealing suspects in High Point, N.C., in 2004.

In Hempstead, more meetings, involving Assistant District Attorney Meg Reiss and Hempstead Police Chief Joseph Wing, were held with 15 community members to gauge feedback.

After a positive reception, larger community meetings were held. With community support, the initiative proceeded, with the Jan. 8 meeting where District Attorney Kathleen Rice unveiled the initiative to the public.


Using videotape and surveillance photos, police gathered evidence against 39 people identified as dealers or participants in the narcotics market in the Terrace and Bedell neighborhood.They prepared arrest warrants. Seventeen were chosen for possible participation in the initiative. They had prior records for narcotics violations. Those with a violent history weren't selected.

Instead of serving the 17 warrants immediately, police sent the suspects letters stating, "After we conducted an extensive drug investigation on Terrace Avenue and Bedell Street, you have been positively identified as selling drugs on the street."

The letters, which are delivered by police, offer a deal: Turn away from the illegal drug trade and avoid arrest and prosecution, and take advantage of job training, employment placement or a GED program.

Thirteen of the 17 offered a second chance were accepted into the program.


Rice's critics questioned why a mostly African-American neighborhood was chosen for an unprecedented initiative in Nassau County. One accused Rice of "putting a black face" on the problem of drug dealing. Critics also wondered how the participants who avoided arrest were selected. In response, Rice said the neighborhood was chosen because of its long history - decades - of being the busiest open-air drug market in Nassau County. Race, Rice said, had nothing to do with the selection.

Rice also said there are ongoing drug investigations all over Nassau County, including neighborhoods with white residents.With community support, Rice said, prosecutors looked for a new way to tackle an old problem that traditional police tactics failed to solve.- KEITH HERBERT

SOURCE: Nassau County police; Village of Hempstead

Drug Arrests'05 '07
Hempstead 408 411 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 68 83

Robberies'05 '07
Hempstead 211 121 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 21 9

Assaults'05 '07
Hempstead 168 175 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 27 14

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Long Island First!

From Affordable Housing To Property Taxes, Fix Long Island And You'll Fix New York

Martin Cantor, Director of the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling College, tells us why it is imperative, on both the economic and social fronts, to start at home.

Upstate is hurting. So is Long Island.

Upstate needs an infusion not only of money, but of new ideas, bold vision, and innovative leadership. So does Long Island.

A lack of workforce housing, the departure of young and old alike, the ever-escalating property tax, all having a devastating impact upon the landscape of upstate New York. Welcome to what Long Island has endured and continues to face as we drift into the seventh year of our new century.

If we are to truly rebuild New York, we must be true to the Governor's call of Day One that we be One New York.

As upstate goes, so goes the rest of New York. Indeed.

Still, until we are able to shore up our own house here in the backyard of America's oldest suburb, we will be in no position to bolster the economy of the suburbs of Buffalo, or build affordable houses and improve the quality of life of those who call upstate home.

Upstate needs the attention of our Governor and our State Legislature, without doubt. Long Island must not be either ignored or shortchanged in the process, however, for our State, as our nation, divided, shall not long stand, and a revitalized upstate without a fluorishing Long Island, works to the long-term benefit of neither.
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From Newsday:

Gov. Eliot Spitzer, develop Long Island first

The state budget proposed last week by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in broad strokes has to leave Long Islanders asking lots of questions about what the details will hold. Because without certain structural changes in how localities do their business, throwing millions of state dollars at some of our biggest problems will not solve them.

And we have to question as well Spitzer's plan to devote $1 billion to jump-starting the long-stagnant upstate economy. Is this going to give the entire state as much of a boost as investing more toward growing the economy of Long Island?

The issue is not so much the amount of money in the budget, but where and how it would be spent - and how much the state is willing to muscle in on local government authority. Take the governor's $400-million affordable housing initiative, $100 million of which is reserved for upstate. Will the $300 million for the downstate region be effective in stemming the outflow of young people from Long Island?

One way to tell is to see if the plan just subsidizes first-time homeowner costs, which is likely to leave the overall supply of affordable housing relatively unchanged, as many young people move into existing homes. Or does it contain incentives for communities to create special areas where developers could erect more units than current zoning allows (thus increasing the builder's potential for profits) - provided that a certain percentage of the units are affordable? This idea, which some Long Island state legislators have been promoting unsuccessfully for years, is a sure way to add a substantial amount of affordable units.

And will the $300 million pay for the sewers and other infrastructure necessary for Long Island to support the projected 120,000 units of affordable housing that the region needs? The big issue the state must face is that many Long Islanders talk the talk of affordable housing but resist walking the walk. Town supervisors speak passionately of the need for affordable housing, but don't really want to live with the taller and denser building it requires.

Before taxpayer dollars are invested in housing, shouldn't we see if towns will be required to demand that builders include affordable housing as part of any new development? State legislation to make this law wouldn't cost taxpayers a cent. Will Spitzer propose this?

Another question: Does the governor's spending plan enhance the transfer of development rights? In this transfer, a town allows a landholder of property it wants to protect from development (such as farmland) to sell his development rights to a developer, who agrees to build in an area where the town wants to put housing, such as a downtown, where the zoning will allow greater density and thus greater profits.While many local officials have lauded this no-cost-to-taxpayer program, few want their towns to be what are called "receiving areas" for high-density housing. To support workforce housing, perhaps the state should provide aid only to towns that are willing to engage in the transfer of development rights. Without the state's financial support, it strains credibility that local officials would support any such program, or the governor's housing initiative. Throwing housing money at towns that won't transfer rights merely rewards them for not doing what they already have the power, but not the will, to do.

As for spending $1 billion upstate on strategic investments likely to produce jobs and stimulate the economy, it makes more sense to invest in Long Island.

Jobs have been disappearing from upstate for decades, and along with them young people. Providing $100 million for housing for a younger workforce when there are no jobs makes little sense. If the thought is to attract Canadian businesses to relocate across the border, recall that previous such efforts through free-trade agreements have failed. Since enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the upstate economy has continued to erode, illustrating the difficulty in attracting Canadian businesses. Canada fought tenaciously to keep its businesses then and will do the same today. It costs less for Canada to keep its businesses than for New York State to attract them.

With the state economy heading close to recession, it is not a good time to be heavily investing in a region that has been failing for decades. When the downstate economy starts picking up, the state should use the resulting growth in sales and income tax revenues to invest upstate.

On another major problem facing the Island - the school property tax crisis - the governor's plan would exacerbate the problem by reducing aid to Long Island education. Then it delays confronting the issue by establishing yet another commission to study the problem. There is only one way to bring meaningful relief to property-tax payers, while also injecting significant economic activity. That is the proposal by State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) that will permanently reduce regional property taxes by nearly 50 percent just by making teachers state employees and capping spending on the balance of school budgets. The additional funding proposed by the governor this year could be the first installment toward that effort. Another benefit is that reducing property taxes decreases the cost of living on Long Island and upstate, which engages the housing market pressures of supply and demand, resulting in existing housing becoming more affordable and more plentiful than any workforce housing plan can create. The governor has some important choices to make.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Suozzi Commission: Property Tax Panelists In Place

Now Its Time To Cap, Consolidate, And Cut Spending To Keep Property Taxes In Check

Governor Spitzer has announced the members of what will certainly come to be known as the Suozzi Commission, the official State body created to find ways to reduce New York's outrageously high property taxes.

A few of those named are familiar -- like Basil Paterson, the former Secretary of State, and Shirley Strum Kenny, the President of SUNY's university center at Stony Brook.

There's also an investment banker, Michael Solomon of Merrill Lynch; a former Onoandaga County Exec, Nicholas Pirro (the Commission will have to first set out to find Onandaga County :-); the vice chancellor of NY's Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch (too bad we can't test the property tax to death); and attorney Paul Tokasz, a former majority leader of the NYS Assembly.

Fine for a study group, assuming the solution is academic. We question whether there is much in the way of innovative, out of the box new-age thinkers among the chosen, though. Other than perhaps having to pay property taxes, and lending their names to the Commission, why these folks as opposed to noteworthy headliners such as Catherine Zeta Jones or Denzel Washington.

We are pleased, for the most part, by the Governor's appointment to the Commission's Advisory Board: Robert Ward, deputy director for SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government; Elizabeth Lynam, deputy research director at the Citizens Budget Commission; Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York; and Lisa Donner, co-director of the Center for Working Families.

Would that the average Joe or two from the Empire State -- in the realm of Mr. & Mrs. Property Taxpayer -- had made the cut. It would have made the Commission's case more compelling, and the urgency of finding practical, truly cost-saving solutions, even more of an imperative.

Oh well. John Q. Public will have to hold his peace until the perfunctory public hearings, we suppose.

Mindful of political considerations, we also would have tapped Senator Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the State Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, who has some decent ideas of his own -- particularly on school spending -- and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to join the panel.

Surely, they'd be loathe to subvert the work of the Commission from the inside, and they'd be pressed to come up with workable (and passable) remedial measures worthy of implementation by the Legislature when the Commission presents its preliminary recommendations (by May 15) and final recommendations (by December 1).

Also, strong and knowledgeable voices concerning affairs of the taxpayers' wallets, say, Kent Gardner of the Center for Government Research, and Edmund J. McMahon, Director of The Empire Center for New York State Policy, would have been credible and welcome additions to the Advisory Board.

Anyway, we all know that this is Tom Suozzi's ball to carry (so let no one steal the spotlight) -- or to drop -- and that the Commission that will come to bear his name will have his indelible mark on it.

Suozzi knows exactly where he wants to go on the highway to property tax relief. Lord knows, he's been talking about the issue long enough, and squawking about Albany's utter failure to do anything about it.

Now New Yorkers must insist not only that the Suozzi Commission's work move forward with all deliberate speed, unimpeded by political roadblocks (the usual GOP suspects are already laying out the roadblocks), and unencumbered by a State Legislature more concerned about securing its meal ticket than assuring that our proprty tax burden -- now virtually the highest in the nation -- is driven down and kept there.

On both sides of the aisle, elected officials realize that the number one issue for New Yorkers -- and the one they will have to address and come to terms with BEFORE the November election -- is property taxes.

It is not only in our best interest, but in their own, to work with the Suozzi Commission, and to act swiftly and forthrightly upon the Commission's ultimate findings.

Armed with subpoena power, the Suozzi Commission can take testimony under oath, subject to the penalties of perjury, of those with pertinent knowledge or information.

Perhaps among the first subpoenae issued, should be those to leaders of the NYS Legislature (surely, they will waive immunity), who can testify, under oath, as to their efforts, and pledge, before all New Yorkers, to that which is the Commission's primary objective -- to lower the sky-high property tax by all reasonable means. [We "don't need a commission to tell people that their property taxes are strangling them," as the Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) so aptly opined. But just maybe we do need a Commission to tell the State Legislature what to do about those property taxes, inclusive of adopting some of Senator Skelos' own ideas, such as making all newly hired teachers State employees.]

Godspeed to the Suozzi Commission. May your endeavors and committment to the financial security of all New York taxpayers do in resolving the property tax crisis, what the Mollen Commission did in the 1990s for the integrity of the New York City Police Department.

Our tax dollars are in your hands!
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Governor Eliot Spitzer today announced the signing of an Executive Order creating the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief. This bipartisan commission, which will have Moreland Act powers, will examine the root causes of high property taxes, identify ways to make the State’s property tax system fairer, and develop a fair and effective school property tax cap to hold the line on property tax growth.

“Ever-growing local property taxes impose a tremendous burden on New York taxpayers, force seniors out of their homes, drive our young people out of our state, and discourage the formation and expansion of businesses,” said Governor Spitzer. “Our efforts to address this crisis – including unprecedented increases in State education aid and more than $5 billion in STAR school tax relief – have not slowed the growth in local property taxes. We need to explore new approaches, including reducing unfunded mandates and placing a cap on the growth of school property taxes. The creation of this Commission is the first step in this process.”

The Commission will be chaired by Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi who has been outspoken on the issue of property tax relief. The Commission’s members are Nicholas J. Pirro, former Onondaga County Executive; Paul A. Tokasz, former member of the State Assembly; Basil A. Paterson, former Secretary of State and former State Senator; Merryl H. Tisch, member, State Board of Regents; Shirley Strum Kenny, President, SUNY Stony Brook; and Michael Solomon, Director, Merrill Lynch & Co.

Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi said: “New Yorkers pay the highest property taxes in the nation, a burden our residents and businesses can no longer bear. We need to take a comprehensive look at the root causes and recommend ways to reduce them. I commend Governor Spitzer for making this issue a top priority, and I appreciate the confidence he has placed in me by asking me to chair the Commission. I look forward to the challenge and to working with all the distinguished Commission members on an issue I have spent much of my career in public service tackling.”

Under the Executive Order, the Commission will study, examine, investigate, review and make recommendations in the following areas:

- the root causes of New York’s high property tax burden, including the expenditures of local governments and school districts, unfunded mandates imposed by the State, and other factors driving the growth of local property tax levies;

- the effectiveness of the various state mechanisms to provide property tax relief to different classes of taxpayers;

- the effectiveness of property tax caps as a mechanism to control growth in school district tax levies, the experience of other states in implementing such caps, and the potential impact of such caps on educational achievement;

- the most effective approach to imposing a limit on school property tax growth in New York State without adversely impacting the ability of school districts to provide a quality education to all schoolchildren;

- the impact of increased state financial support and state taxpayer relief and rebate programs on local school district budgets and tax levies; and

- the extent of public involvement in the development and approval of school and other local government budgets.

The Commission is to make preliminary recommendations for a statutory school property tax cap by May 15, 2008, and report its final recommendations by December 1, 2008.

John Reid, Deputy Director of State Operations and Executive Director of the Commission on Higher Education, will serve as Executive Director of the Commission.

The announcement today in the Red Room at the State Capitol was one of three events today where the Governor stressed the importance of the Commission to address the property tax relief concerns for all New Yorkers.

Commission Members:
Thomas R. Suozzi
is in his second term as Nassau County Executive. He is known as a government reformer and he has also worked as an attorney, certified public accountant, and former Mayor of Glen Cove for eight years. Mr. Suozzi continues to work to bring strong management, fiscal discipline, compassion, and vision to Nassau County. Under Mr. Suozzi, Nassau has its lowest crime rate in 30 years and is the safest place in the nation with over a million people. The parks system is making a comeback, and for the first time in the county’s history voters approved $150 million in bonds to preserve open space.

Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny is the President of Stony Brook University. After a distinguished career as a literary scholar, teacher, and academic administrator, she came to Stony Brook as its fourth President in 1994. Since then, she has worked to strengthen the core academic and research operations of the University, fostered close links with business and industry, and established new working relationships with the Long Island community. Concerned about the state of undergraduate education at major research universities, Dr. Kenny headed a national initiative to address the issue. She launched and chaired the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University with funding from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Dr. Kenny holds bachelor's degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Texas, an M.A. from the University of Minnesota, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester, and Chonnam National, Dongguk, and Ajou Universities in Korea.

Basil A. Paterson is a partner in the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. Mr. Paterson has served as New York’s Secretary of State and as New York City Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations and Personnel. He has also served as a New York State Senator, and as a Commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Paterson chaired the New York City Mayor’s Judiciary Committee for four years; chaired the Governor’s Judicial Screening Panel for the Second Department for eight years, and served on the Commission on Judicial Nomination for twelve years. He is presently the Chairperson of the KeySpan Foundation Board of Directors. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s College and a Juris Doctor degree from St. John’s Law School.

Nicholas J. Pirro served as Onondaga County Executive for 20 years, retiring at the end of 2007. He has been credited for fiscally conservative policies aimed at reducing taxes and government spending, while improving services. Mr. Pirro began his career in public service in 1965 when he was appointed to the Onondaga County Board of Supervisors (now the Onondaga County Legislature). He was elected Onondaga County Executive in 1987 and was instrumental in many landmark initiatives during his career, including the establishment of the Onondaga Community College Campus, reestablishing the City-County Drug Abuse Commission, implementing a 911 Emergency Communications System, and initiating a county-wide recycling program. He also helped create the Onondaga County Public Library System, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park, the Center for Forensic Sciences, and the County’s Veteran’s Cemetery. Mr. Pirro was elected by his peers to serve as President of the New York State Association of Counties for 2000-01.

Michael Solomon is a municipal finance professional having provided investment banking and advisory services to state and local governments for over 20 years. He is employed in the Public Finance department at Merril Lynch & Co. headquartered in lower Manhattan. In his work for the state of Michigan, he helped to create the nation's first revolving fund program for school construction, which was recognized by the Bond Buyer as the Midwest Deal of the Year for 2007. In addition, Solomon's experience with education includes providing short term funding for the operating budgets on over 400 school districts in Michigan and working with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in developing its new educational funding entity, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which fundamentally transformed how the commonwealth funds its financial support to school districts. Mr. Solomon graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in Financial Management Systems. He is a native of Oceanside, Long Island and now resides in Bedford, NY.

Merryl H. Tisch has been a member of the New York State Board of Regents since April 1996, and has served as Vice Chancellor of the Board since April 2007. From 1977-1984 she taught first grade at the Ramaz School and Bnail Jeshurun School in New York City. She serves as the New York City Mayor’s appointee to the Commission on the Status of Women and the Mayor’s representative to the Tenement Museum of the City of New York. Regent Tisch also serves UJA-Federation of New York as a member of the Board of Trustees, member of the Executive Committee, member of the Planning and Allocation Committee, and Chair of the Government Relations Committee. She is President of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Poverty. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College, a Master of Arts degree in Education from New York University and an Ed.D. from Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Paul A. Tokasz is a partner in the government affairs and media relations firm of Patricia Lynch Associates and the former Majority Leader of the New York State Assembly. Mr. Tokasz has a long and distinguished career of more than three decades in public service. Prior to being appointed Majority Leader, Mr. Tokasz served as Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development. Serving in that role from 1997, he proved to be a strong advocate for arts and tourism. He received his Bachelors of Arts Degree in History from Hobart College and furthered his education at Buffalo State College where he obtained his Master's Degree in Education.

Special Advisors to the Commission:
Lisa Donner
is the founding Co-Director of the Center for Working Families. Previously, she worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union for four years, mostly dedicated to the Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, DC. Ms. Donner subsequently worked for ACORN for 11 years, first as a Legislative Representative and then in turn as Legislative Director, National Campaign Director, Director of ACORN’s Financial Justice Center, and as ACORN’s National Director of Public Policy. Ms. Donner graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Social Studies.

Elizabeth Lynam is the Deputy Research Director at the Citizens Budget Commission, a non-partisan, nonprofit civic organization devoted to influencing constructive change in the finances and services of New York State and New York City governments. Ms. Lynam covers the New York State and City budgets and other policy issues important to State and local government. She works closely with the media, and has designed and authored studies on local tax relief, reforming New York State’s fiscal practices, Medicaid, special education policy, collective bargaining, and alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders. Prior to the Citizens Budget Commission, Ms. Lynam was the Deputy Director of the Office of Special Education Initiatives at the New York City Department of Education, where she helped manage the transformation of the way special education services are delivered in New York City public schools. She received her BS from Cornell University and an M.S. in Urban Policy and Management from the New School University.

Karen Scharff has served as the Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York since 1984. Citizen Action is a statewide grassroots organization that empowers New Yorkers to fight for social, economic and racial justice, with a focus on policy change at the state level. She was one of the founders of the Alliance for Quality Education, and she co-chairs AQE’s statewide board. Ms. Scharff chairs the Steering Committee of the Coalition for After-School Funding, which was founded in 2000 to advocate for increased state and federal resources for after school programs. She co-chairs the Policy Committee of the New York State After School Network, and serves on NYSAN’s Steering Committee. Ms. Scharff graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. from Harvard University in 1979.

Robert B. Ward is Deputy Director/Director of Fiscal Studies for the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. He is author of New York State Government: Second Edition, published by the Rockefeller Institute Press; and of The $163 Lightbulb: How Albany’s Mandates Drive Up Your Local Taxes, published by the Public Policy Institute of New York State. Ward has previously served as Director of Research for the Public Policy Institute of New York State/the Business Council of New York State; and as Assistant to the Chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. He is a founding member of Parents For Excellence, a parents group in the Bethlehem Central School District. A graduate of Syracuse University, Mr.Ward lives in Delmar.

Long Islanders Favor Higher Density

Smart Growth Seeps Into Suburbia, But Apparently, Not In Hempstead Town

A recent study by the Long Island Index -- the folks who study things like this -- reveals that a majority of LIers favor higher density, particularly as part and parcel of the redevlopment of "downtown."

61% of those surveyed, in fact, think high-density housing in our downtown areas is a good thing.
And in a region where single-family houses were said to be sacrosanct, even the idea of the typical suburban scene -- a Levitt home on a 60' by 100' lot, surrounded by a white picket fence -- is giving way to that new suburban mindset of more rental units, more housing in downtown areas, and taller buildings along 'Main Street.'

In fact, the forward-looking trend, and not only among housing experts and Smart Growth advocates, is that, in order to maintain our suburban quality of life, and keep Long Island economically sustainable, there must be "...inclusionary zoning, which would require that a share of new housing construction be sold at prices that are affordable to low, moderate or middle-income individuals; incentives to municipalities to zone for higher density housing, a share of which would be for moderate/middle income households; and transit-oriented development, in which transportation agencies, housing agencies and municipalities cooperate to create new residential or mixed-use communities around train stations and other transit facilities."

Not new ideas, certainly, but surely those whose time have finally come, at least as far as Long Island homeowners are concerned.

Of course, not everyone is so inclined to move Long Island into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

Take the Supervisor and Town Board in Hempstead Town (PLEASE!), where being stuck in the 1950s has become the favorite pasttime of local officials.

In the Town of Hempstead, density (other than as the cerebral affliction suffered by the members of the Town Board), is viewed entirely as a negative, even in instances where the community favors density as a tool for redevelopment.

Last Tuesday, for instance, the Town Board, in its infinite lack of wisdom, and stubborn adherence to the old and failed, turned down the request of the West Hempstead community for the private sale of a no-tell motel to a developer who would have built upscale apartment units (saying the proposal was "too dense"), in favor of the adoption of an "Urban" Renewal plan (we thought this was suburbia) that was scorned by local civic associations, community leaders, and Smart Growth advocates alike.

Leaving aside the very real question of "whatever happened to representative government?" [In Hempstead Town? Who's kidding whom?], there's the substantive issue of what is truly in the community's -- and Long Island's -- best interest.

Walter Ejnes, a longtime West Hempstead resident and a member of the West Hempstead Civic Association's Executive Board, expressed dismay over the Town Board's decision -- one which we would say was based on ignorance (both of the facts, and of the will of the people).

Said Ejnes:

"Talk about perfect timing. The unfortunate result of the town board clearly shows that our leaders are not only out of touch with the community's wishes, but also out of touch with the economic development experts on Long Isand. Many of you may have read or heard about the report that came out today on the Housing situation on LI. The report is prepared annually by the Long Island Index, which is made up of LI's top economists and economic development professionals.

"The 2008 report was released just this morning and the focus of this year's report is that Long Islander's want to see changes in the zoning laws to allow higher densities to allow for apartments. While we often talk about our young professionals, the most striking surprise was that the Baby Boomers showed the most support for this concept as they see apartments and rentals as a viable option to stay on LI. It makes sense as they could sell their homes, rent and avoid the high taxes that come with ownership."

Here is an excerpt from the Long Island Index report's recommendations:

Young residents share the goals of their parents’ generation; they hope to own a large single-family home in a suburban setting where homes are spaced apart and offer privacy. They also acknowledge that this goal will be hard to attain and may be willing to entertain some alternative routes to attain this goals, including life in an apartment or condo in a local downtown area. The young generation may leave or stay on Long Island; they were almost equally likely to think they might move locally or out of the area in the next five years. Much will depend on their financial ability to meet housing costs. Unfortunately, they are also especially pessimistic about Long Island’s future, a bad sign for the area’s future vibrancy. In contrast, there is evidence that older Long Islanders, likely empty nesters, are interested in downsizing, perhaps as a way to capitalize on the value of a large single family home.

Baby boomers and seniors express an interest in alternative housing and in living in walkable neighborhoods. A sizeable number of baby boomers can also imagine living in a condo or apartment downtown. This demonstrates a willingness to change. Unfortunately, baby boomers are also seriously contemplating leaving Long Island. This reflects a concern over high taxes and the possible departure of family members. But it also seems like a situation that could be addressed through local development and the creation of more affordable, alternative housing solutions that carry a lighter tax load. Baby boomers have equity in their homes and will spend that on housing somewhere. Why not on Long Island? These findings provide much fuel for thought about the future direction of local development.

Why not Long Island, indeed!

Clearly, Long Islanders are beginning to understand that affordable housing, increased density (particularly in or near downtown business districts), and keeping folks on the Island, rather than forcing them to move away by reason of high property taxes and low housing options, is our salvation, not suburbia's ruin.

Too bad that local officials the likes of Hempstead Town's Kate Murray just can't see the forest for the few trees we have left here.

Perhaps that's why America's largest township has been turned into America's most blighted township (with Hempstead Town having the blight studies to prove it), and why, when those few remaining trees do fall on Long Island, there may no longer be anyone around to hear them!
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Click HERE to read the Newsday story, Long Islanders would trade houses for apartments.
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From the Editorial page of Newsday:

Time is right to build up downtowns

The people are way ahead of the politicians, again.

A new survey by the Long Island Index shows that people are now more receptive to downtown living - including taller buildings and even multistory parking garages - as an alternative to sprawl. Yet most village mayors and town supervisors have failed to embrace the obvious: The only way we can grow is up.

Our traditional, single-family-home model of growth, one that now includes 85 percent of Long Islanders, is no longer sustainable. Housing costs are so high that young people are leaving at rates that will deprive us of the future workforce we need to keep our economy humming. Property taxes are through the roof. And we're running out of land.

"We have an ocean telling us to find some other way," said Ann Golob, the Index project director, at the report's unveiling yesterday at Farmingdale State College. And the former mayor of Greenport, David Kapell, added: "For a real solution to emerge, we need to think vertically in a big way." Unfortunately, few mayors - Paul Pontieri of Patchogue is a notable exception - see it that way.

Too many local politicians view density and height as the untouchable third rails of land-use planning, and there are some loud voices in the community that encourage that sort of fear-think. But the Index survey shows that half of Long Islanders now favor raising building heights in downtown from two to four stories, to allow for apartments above stores. That's a 10-point increase in that attitude since 2004.

It's clear: Young Long Islanders want vibrant downtowns with affordable rental units. If we don't listen and get it done, we're waving goodbye to our future.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Lament Of A Special District Commissioner

Perks, Bennies, Pay-Days, And Dinner At Morton's Could Soon Be A Thing Of The Past

A down-and-out Max Bialistock of The Producers fame would shamelessy croon, "I used to be the King, the King of old Broadway."

That was, until he lost it all.

Here on Long Island, where there are more commissioner-operated special taxing districts -- and accordingly, more abuse of the taxpayer -- the beneficiaries of the patronage mill may well be singing a similar tune.

"I used to be the Commissioner, the Commissioner of Sanitary District 1. But now they've taken my pay and perks, and it looks as though I'm done!"

Woe would be the commissioners of New York's infamous special taxing districts if two measures proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer gain support in and passage through the NYS Legislature.

The first calls for all special district commissioners to serve without compensation (as do library board trustees and school board members).

No more 15 "meetings" per month at $100 a pop per non-appearing commish. Off with the orthodonture for the commissioner's wife. Gone to the all-expenses-paid junkets to Vegas, the gratuitous golf outings, the lifetime health care, and the $700 taxpayer-paid steak dinners.

The second proposal, aimed solely at the sanitation districts, turns operations, but for what type of service will be provided, over to the local townships; the towns, historically, having provided the service, contemporaneously with the special districts, of equal quality, and at less expense to John Q. Public.

The sanitary districts would continue to exist, at least on paper, although commissioners, serving as volunteers (that means no pay, no benefits, and no taxpayer-funded vacations, folks), would decide things like whether your trash will be picked up at the curb or at the back door, and not whether to use tax dollars for expensive SUVs, life insurance policies, or winters in Florida under the thinly veiled guise of attendance at conferences.

If all of this sounds a note or two of familiarity, it should. The Community Alliance has been calling for Albany to reign in the special taxing districts going on three years now, ever since Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson brought the abuses of these self-serving fiefdoms to the fore in 2005.

The Governor's proposals come in advance of the findings of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness, due out in April.

Not looking to steal the Commission's thunder (clearly, the measures proferred come out of the workings of the Commission), the Governor seeks to take the lead in putting the measures to the Legislature, rather than waiting for the Legislature to act on its own.

Great move, Mr. Spitzer! If New Yorkers wait for legislative initiative on the infamous special districts, they'll be paying through the nose for a long, long time to come.

Unlikely that any such measure would make it out of committee to the Assembly floor, lest Speaker Silver was feeling particularly magnanimous, and the GOP-controlled Senate is already lining up in a Nancy Reaganesque parade of "Just Say No" to anything that might actually loosen the political patronage grip at home -- that which they so humbly allude to as "local control."

Of course, it would behoove the members of New York's State Legislature to move these measures, and to do so quickly and without partisan rancor.

After all, the public's patience with paying more than the neighbors pay for like services, and for special district commissioners (and their families) who rake it in on the public dole while the taxpayer gets raked over the coals, has all but worn thin.

The public cry here should be -- no, must be -- "Pass the Governor's proposals to reign in the special districts, or we'll pass on your re-election bid come November." [Every seat in the NYS Legislature is up for graps in '08. They need your votes. We know it. They know it.]

Before the State Legislature this session will be many tough decisions. Among them, how to close a $4.4 billion gap, slash pork-barrel spending, equitably and adequately fund public education, and, yes, put a lid on runaway school property taxes.

That's a plate full, and then some.

As for the Governor's proposals to have the special district commissioners serve gratis, and to turn the operations and taxing authority of the sanitary districts over to the towns, well, DUH, that's practically a no-brainer -- even for our State Legislators, zions of dysfunction, and masters of form over substance, be they.

Folks, 2008 is our year. The opportunity to save millions in taxpayer dollars. Yes, millions. The chance to change the status quo, and change it so that rather than continue to permit the few to pick the pockets of the many, we create a system of parity, accountability, and transparency.

Giving the people what they want. Saving the taxpayer real money. Eliminating waste. Consolidating services.

Now that's what we call, "local control!"
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From Newsday:

Spitzer proposes to streamline special districts

Gov. Eliot Spitzer is expected to recommend in his budget message today that all pay and benefits for more than 130 commissioners who oversee special districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties be eliminated, county and state officials said yesterday. Spitzer also is expected to propose that towns take over the day-to-day management of one type of special district - sanitary districts, which collect garbage. He is not expected to address other types of special districts today.

The commissioners would remain in place to determine the kind of service offered.

Both recommendations, which are fraught with political implications because special districts are seen as patronage mills, need state legislation before being enacted. Although state officials did not estimate the cost savings, payroll records obtained by Newsday show that eliminating commissioners' salaries alone would save taxpayers - mostly in Nassau - at least $1 million a year. Eliminating health benefits would save tens of thousands more because commissioners, who work part-time, are eligible for lifetime benefits. Currently, coverage costs a district about $7,000 for an individual and $15,000 for family coverage. Officials who spoke to Newsday yesterday about Spitzer's expected proposal asked not to be identified.

Suozzi applauds proposal
Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who has advocated streamlining local governments, said in a statement yesterday he applauded the governor's action.

"Unfortunately, recent stories about some bad apples and abuses cast doubt over the entire system and reform is necessary," he said. Spitzer's proposals follow Newsday stories on the lavish pay, benefits and perks given to commissioners of special districts, the tiny units of government that handle such services as water and garbage pickup in specific areas. Newsday's review of district financial records, obtained last year under the Freedom of Information law, found that a select group of part-time public officials reaped a bonanza in benefits, getting paid to attend golf outings, for example, and garnering lifetime health benefits for themselves and, in many cases, their spouses, too.

Spitzer, who has decried the tax burden imposed by multiple layers of government throughout New York State, established a statewide commission on special districts last year. The commission is due to issue its report April 15. The people who spoke to Newsday about the governor's proposal said the public outcry over pay and benefits in the wake of Newsday's stories persuaded them to act sooner and release these two recommendations early.

For years, the independent special districts have had limited public oversight because they are run by their own boards. They are not required to file reports with the state comptroller, and there are no legal limits on the fringe benefits commissioners may give themselves. Yet they receive an estimated $500 million yearly from taxpayers. Although special districts receive no state funding, the compensation paid to commissioners is permitted by state law, which is why the governor chose to include the recommendations in his budget message, the sources said.

Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, whose office has issued a number of audits critical of spending in special districts, said the recommendations primarily affect Nassau County. Commissioners in special districts outside Long Island do not get paid, he said. By law, fire district commissioners do not receive pay. Nor do library trustees or school board members. By contrast, commissioners of park, water and sewer districts may receive $80 to $100 per diem, a payment for attending a meeting. Sanitation commissioners may earn up to $7,500 a year. These payments make commissioners eligible to earn time in the state pension system.

Suozzi said such a system of pay for some and not for others was unfair.

Jeffrey LoSquadro, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Water Commissioners Association, defended commissioners' work. As for eliminating their pay and benefits, he said, "I think it's going to affect the quality of the people you get serving."

North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, a Democrat, agreed. "If you take away the incentive for being a commissioner, fewer people will apply for these positions, leaving a void that the town will have to fill."

Concern in Hempstead
The recommendation that the towns take over the management of independent sanitary districts probably would have the biggest impact in Hempstead, which has five garbage districts employing more than 500 people. Their budgets total nearly $60 million.

"We're happy that government officials at the county and state level think we do a good job," said Hempstead Town spokesman Michael Deery. "If a community wants us to do the job, we'd be happy to."

However, he added, "We're not going to impose our will on a community."

Weitzman said a town takeover of sanitary districts would save millions of dollars in insurance costs and operating expenses and would lead to greater "transparency" in operations.

Of the governor's recommendations, he said, "This is an important first step."

Salaries, fringe benefits
A Newsday review of salaries found that district commissioners not only get paid but get generous health benefits as well.

A review of financial records revealed exceptionally high salaries in special districts, such as $93,000 for a full-time meter reader in Jericho. Studies show that public-sector salaries on Long Island are on average higher than private-sector salaries.

Special districts provide fringe benefits that go beyond the already generous health benefits given to other public employees. Examples include fully paid braces, cancer coverage and Medi-Gap insurance.

Commissioners and employees of special districts enjoy a variety of perks, ranging from cars to travel and, in one case, a house.

Especially taxing
A special district provides a certain service, such as garbage pickup or water hookup, to a specific geographic area. The first such districts were created after the 1920s and grew as Long Island developed, mostly concentrated in Nassau County.

Long Island has

Spitzer's proposals would impact

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Spitzer To NYers: Less Tax Relief, More Money Filling The Tank

Governor's Proposed Budget Cuts Aid To LI School Districts, And Ups The Price At The Pump

True enough, we have a $4.6 billion gap to close in New York, but if Eliot Spitzer, who delivered his 2008-09 Budget message to the NYS Legislature this afternoon, intends to do that on the taxpayers' backs, without slashing spending by any significant level, he'll not only remain widely unpopular, he'll drive even more of us off Long Island and out of New York.

A smaller STAR rebate (for whatever that is worth). Less State Aid to our local school districts. An increase in the gasoline tax (at a time when this tax should be cut).

The bottom line is that even modest increases in taxes, coupled with decreases in aid to school districts and still no real property tax relief, is too much, particularly when much of New York, including Long Island and economically devastated upstate, are attempting to stave off the effects of an apparent recession.

New Yorkers understand the need for belt-tightening, and making sacrifices. We've been doing both for years. Unfortunately, from what we see in the Governor's 2008-09 proposed budget, Mr. Spitzer doesn't understand that the fiscal restraint and give-backs have to start in Albany.

So far, there's not all that much to cheer about in the State capital. Let's hope that the Legislature, in its upcoming review and revision of the budget, can restore school aid, hold new taxes and fees at bay, and, at long last, actually do something to cut the property tax.

As for cutting spending -- in a legislative election year, no less -- well, just don't hold your breath!
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From The New York Times:

Spitzer Proposes New Taxes and Fees

ALBANY—Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed an array of new taxes and fees, $1 billion in health care cuts and scaled back plans for new education aid and property tax relief in his second executive budget.

The governor’s budget, which was unveiled Tuesday, came on a day when the Federal Reserve dramatically cut interest rates to stave off increasingly gloomy economic conditions in the United States that sent global markets plummeting over the weekend.

“Like every other state in the nation, New York is feeling the effects of a serious economic downturn requiring us to make tough decisions necessary to continue moving our state in the right direction,” the governor wrote in a message included with his budget presentation.

With the state facing a projected $4.4 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year — which begins on April 1 — the governor proposed a spending increase of 5 percent, the lowest proposed spending increase in an executive budget in several years. That said, it was one that critics said was not sharp enough given the worsening economic conditions. Further, the governor called for an increase of nearly 1 percent in the state workforce, bringing the number of workers over 200,000.

And there will likely be pressure from the Legislature to increase spending further — as there always is — in a year when all 212 lawmakers are up for re-election and Republicans will be fighting to hold their slim majority in the Senate.

Of particular sensitivity will be $738 million in proposed new taxes and fees, though there is no broadly based income tax increase. Among the new measures were modest increases in everything from taxes on gasoline and malt liquor to increases in fees the state charges for home purchases above $175,000 and steps aimed at increases in taxes paid by out-of-state residents who work or do business in New York.

The administration said it was not raising taxes, but closing loopholes, though a number of their steps will likely be felt by consumers. Among them was a plan to reclassify Health Maintenance Organizations so they are taxed as insurers, a move that will cost H.M.O.’s more than $200 million a year and presumably be passed on to patients.

Republicans in the Senate particularly objected to proposed cutbacks in the School Tax Relief, or STAR, program, which sends money back to homeowners to modestly offset their property taxes. The state had committed to return $1.8 billion to property taxpayers this year; that will be scaled back to $1.25 billion.

“This budget once again is an assault on suburban families, in terms of education, in terms of property tax relief, in terms of health care and in terms of economic development and job creation,” said Tom Dunham, a spokesman for Senator Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican and the deputy majority leader of the Senate. “He obviously didn’t learn his lesson last year.”

Over all, the $124.3 billion budget — including federal matching funds — increases spending by 5 percent. The governor is proposing $980 million in Medicaid and other health care cuts, in part by changing the way the state reimburses for care to emphasize preventative care and by making changes in the way it does bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals.

The Spitzer administration is also seeking to reap $1.35 billion in savings by ordering agencies to pare 5 percent from their budgets, including by closing some facilities and taking steps to lower energy use.

The governor proposed a $1.46 billion increase in education aid, bringing total education spending to $21 billion. But his aid plan is scaled back from what he had outlined last year; New York City schools will likely see a $100 million reduction in expected operating aid under the plan, though an increase from last year. Aid set aside by Senate Republicans for Long Island will also be reduced in the plan, a move sure to spark a fight with the Legislature.

Edmund J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative group, said, “I don’t think 5 to 6 percent growth qualifies as an austere response — it doesn’t qualify as belt tightening; it’s more like throat clearing.

“Spending is still increasing at an unsustainable level. We’re dealing with it one year at a time and hoping for the best in the future.”

Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, said: “Everyone recognizes this is a very difficult year budget wise.

“While there will definitely be interest groups kicking and screaming about their particular subject areas, the important thing to recognize is there are difficult choices to be made and the governor has struck a good balance.”

2008 The New York Times Company

Will Elmont Rise From The Ruins Of The Argo?

$2.5 Mil Says It Will!

They say you can't buy happiness. But how about the rebirth of a decaying, blighted downtown, and a renaissance for a communty too long on the fringes?

The gateway to Nassau -- or at least a small part of it (that surrounding the all but abandoned Argo movie theater, once a mainstay of a then-thriving Elmont business district) -- stands to take a giant leap into the 21st century, with the infusion of $2.5 million in grant money as secured through the RestoreNY project by State Senator Dean Skelos and Assemblyman Tom Alfano.

The confluence of all levels of government working alongside members of the Elmont community has helped secure an infusion of money that, representing, if not a transformation from blight to beauty (no one expects miracles), then certainly, a step in the right direction.

Kudos go not only to Mssrs. Skelos and Alfano, often called the fairy godmembers of the community for their ability to bring money for revitalization into the areas they represent, but also to Hempstead Town Councilman Ed Ambrosino, and the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development (which Ambrosino co-chairs), for setting the wheels in motion.

With the money soon to be in place for the redevelopment of this 3-acre site (small, but its a start), the big question is (a) will this seed money ($2.5 mil just doesn't go as far as it used to) be used wisely by the Town of Hempstead, which will administer this money, as well as the rest of the State monies totaling $8 million as designated for the revitalization project, and (b) if they build it, will private investors follow suit, bringing both dollars and sense to what in its day was -- and tomorrow could be again -- not only the gateway to Nassau, but the county's pre-eminent showcase.

Sure, $2.5 million can buy a whole trailer load of Victorian-style street lamps, and the lackluster, almost feeble facade "improvements" that the Town of Hempstead has historically passed off as "redevelopment" hasn't demonstrated much in the way of either planning or foresight.

With much at stake here, however -- for both the Elmont community and America's largest township -- the impetus exists to do more than throw down a few blocks of brick pavers.

Indeed, more than ever before, this is Elmont's time. From Belmont Park to the Argo site, revitalization and renewal are in the air.

It behooves the Town of Hempstead to get it right!
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From The Elmont Herald:

Grant would clean up three acre site for economic development

Elmont received good news from Assemblyman Tom Alfano and Senator Dean Skelos when they secured state funding totaling $2.5 million for a revitalization project in Elmont for the Argo Theater Revitalization Plan. The grant comes from the Restore NY project which encourages rehabilitation and reinvestment in communities and will be used to revitalize a three acre site at the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and Elmont Road.

“I could not be more proud to team with Senator Dean Skelos to help deliver the money that is desperately needed for this restoration project,” Assemblyman Alfano stated. “I am especially proud of the effort of the community led by Councilman Ed Ambrosino, the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development and Supervisor Murray in helping jumpstart this initiative in applying for this Restore NY grant. We showed the state just how vital state assistance would be to our community and there is no doubt that this funding will help to bring about a new day and outlook for the gateway to Nassau County – Elmont.”

“This is just the beginning of great things for the Elmont community. Assemblyman Alfano and I are committed to revitalizing Hempstead Turnpike, creating jobs and lowering taxes for homeowners. The work the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development has done has helped us realize this funding,” said Senator Dean Skelos.

“My priority, along with Senator Skelos, is to revitalize and help create jobs for Elmont. Further, when we fund projects like this, it helps bring in new business and raise revenue so that we can cut property taxes,” said Assemblyman Alfano.

The Restore NY is a program designed to encourage economic development and neighborhood growth by providing municipalities with financial assistance for revitalization of commercial and residential properties. For the 2007 round of requests, up to $100 million was available for distribution to various municipalities in accordance with need and importance.

As part of the cooperative effort between and among the different levels of government committed to Elmont revitalization, the Town of Hempstead, as the municipality, made application to the State for the grant. The State is providing the funding and the Town will administer it.

According to Senator Alfano’s office the money is specifically earmarked for the economic development/revitalization of the 3 acre site at the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and Elmont Road, referred to as the Argo Theater, and can’t be used by the Town for anything or anywhere else. It will be, of course, imperative that Elmont community members, civic leaders, and the Elmont Coalition for Sustainable Development diligently participate and monitor the funding and its use.

According to Alfano, Seklos and the governor’s office, the total project’s costs will be $8 million, of which Elmont, through the Town of Hempstead, had asked for $2.5 million to help defray the costs of construction and clean up at the three acre site at the intersection of the Hempstead Turnpike and Elmont Road. Because of the significance of the town and the proximity to the famed Belmont Park Race Track, the state was compelled to fully fund this project.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Thank You, Kate Murray!"

There's A Louse In The House In Hempstead Town

Talk about breaking one's arm while patting oneself on the back.

Has anyone seen those self-serving cable TV spots, where supposed recipients of the Town of Hempstead's paltry few affordable homes profusely thank Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray for building all of those affordable houses we see in America's largest township?

Must be the trailer for a new comedy series, because but for the paltry few affordable houses built by the Town -- what was it, 9 in 2006 and 11 in 2007? -- the Town hasn't made a dent in the dearth of affordable housing, whether designed for ownership, or rental.

And if, as the Town claims, it has built 200 new homes under its so-called Affordable Homes Program, and renovated some 800 rental apartments (in the Village of Hempstead) -- that's renovated, not created -- the numbers pale in comparison to the dramatically increasing need for affordable housing in Hempstead Town, where affordable homes offered for ownership are few, and affordable rentals are all but nil.

Not to say that anyone else at any level of government is doing more -- or even as much. [Perhaps the feds can send us their FEMA trailers, now that they've been given the okay to remove them from the Gulf Coast.] And not to diminish the efforts of the Town in doing what they've done -- its a laudable beginning. But please, stop using (misusing) public money for TV spots praising the Supervisor for, if we view the ad correctly, what would appear to be single-handedly solving the affordable housing crisis.

Frankly, with blunders such as the mold at Archstone (minus 800 rental units, only 10% of which were affordable, by any definition), and follies like the West Hempstead Urban Renewal Plan, there's not all that much for Kate Murray to boast about on the affordable housing front, and even less for residents to be thankful for.

For every one story conspicuously posted on the Town of Hempstead website highlighting the success of the Affordable Homes Program (Grandmother Burned Out Of House Gets Keys To New Affordable Home), there are hundreds of untold stories of seniors, juniors, and in-betweeners who are forced off of Long Island (some of them into the streets) simply because they have no place they can afford to rent, let alone buy.

Yes, Kate is setting the stage for a run as Nassau County Exec in 2009 [Tom, if you're not our United States Senator by then, Nassau needs you to stay at the helm], showcasing -- at our expense -- what she has done, or what she believes she has done, surrounded by adoring (fearful?) kiss-me-Katers who wouldn't dare tell her otherwise.

Fair enough. We won't blame her for taking credit for what she has done right, whether on making Hempstead Town "greener" (or was that just for those who reside in Levittown?) or making a concerted effort to at least plant the seeds for an affordable housing program, albeit with too few houses, and virtually no rentals. [Apparently, Kate doesn't care much for rental units dotting the suburban landscape. That's too bad. We need them; the economics of the new suburbia demands them; and the revitalization of our aging and decaying downtowns requires them as cornerstones of renewal.]

"We are committed to preserving the suburban character of our neighborhoods while we embrace balanced growth to accommodate young families and seniors who want to live here. Hempstead is also redeveloping downtowns to keep business districts vibrant and guard against urban decay," said Supervisor Murray at her recent recoronation.

Committment is one thing, Kate. Actually getting the job done is quite another.

Perhaps when Charles Theofan -- former Long Beach City Manager, then TOH Commissioner of Planning & Economic Development, and now Long Beach City Manager again -- is succeeded at Town Hall [get your resumes in, Levittowners, the nationwide search is underway], we'll see more of a vision -- one that translates into a reality of affordable places to live for our children, our seniors, our workforce, and for you and I, perhaps -- rather than "blight studies" that translate into big bucks for the developers and special interests.

Until that day, hold the balloons, and can the costly TV spots thanking Kate Murray.
- - -

With the feds giving the tacit nod in favor of a Liquified Natural Gas platform in Long Island Sound, NOW is the time for Governor Spitzer to take a stand against Broadwater.

Click HERE to urge Eliot Spitzer to formally say NO to Broadwater by sending a message to the Governor, courtesy of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, or call Governor Spitzer at 518-474-8390.

The future of Long Island sound calls for a wave of action, not a ripple of silence.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Did Someone Call Me Shnorrer?"

Counsel For Sanitary District 1 Still Has Gift For Glib

There he goes again!

Learned (in the ways of razzle-dazzle 'em) counsel for Town of Hempstead's Sanitary District 1, Nat "Extra Trucks To Pick Up The Bread During Passover" Swergold continues to talk up the propriety of paying more for the same service the Town provides, directly, for considerably less. [Guess you could call that, "trash talk!"]

Apparently, Nat has an audience in the Five Towns, or at least the benefit of a deaf-eared electorate that would rather pay top dollar than vote the bums out.

Merge the commissioner-operated special districts into existing Town departments? Take away the benefits afforded to the commissioners, their wives, children, and mothers-in-law? Actually save the taxpayers significant tax dollars?

Are you crazy?

What would folks like Nat Swergold, who depend upon the ignorance and indifference of the ordinary Joe for their meal tickets, do with themselves?

Surely, Nat could be recycled, and put to a higher and better use. [Say as a representative for Wonder Bread during Passover.]

Then again, recycling in the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary District 1 isn't all Nat Swergold says its cracked up to be, either.

Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, who is a member of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness, offers a brilliant solution, sure to save the taxpayer in the wallet and equalize what homeowners and businesses pay for services such as garbage collection: turn the operations over to the towns, leaving in place the districts and their commissioners, who will serve without pay, without benefits, without perks such as expense accounts and cars, and without taxing authority.

In other words, leave the commissioners as mere volunteers (in the true sense of the word), and watch how quickly both the commissioners and their special districts disappear from the face of Long Island.

Meanwhile, residents in places like Sanitary District 1 will continue to cough up taxes to the tune of $928 a year per household -- with residents of Sanitary District 6, where they don't have "back door service", paying even more (an average of $974 a year per household) -- while those who are served directly by the Town of Hempstead Sanitation Department pay an average of $671 per household.

Go figure!
- - -
From The Merrick Herald:

Report trashes special sanit districts
By Mike Caputo

A report recently released by county Comptroller Howard Weitzman revealed that many homeowners are paying more to receive the same services - such as garbage pick-up - as residents in neighboring municipalities.

According to the report, which outlined the economic inequities among the dozens of special districts in Nassau, the tax bills are significantly different within each special district, even if the residents are receiving the same or similar fire, water and sanitation services.

"The purpose of this report was to open people's eyes to the disparity in what residents in Nassau County pay for basically the same services," Weitzman said. "I think we were successful in doing that. People may now be open to the fact that this structure under which they receive municipal services is part of the reason why their tax burden is so high."

Homeowners in Sanitary District 1, which covers the Five Towns and parts of South Valley Stream, pay an average of $928 a year for garbage service, the report said. Although the district provides rear-door garbage pick-up, several other districts in the county provide the same service for a lower cost to the taxpayer, the comptroller's report added.

Homeowners in Merrick and North Merrick pay an average of $671 a year, and receive rear-door garbage pickup from the Town of Hempstead. Nat Swergold, attorney for Sanitary District 1, disagreed with Weitzman's claim that residents are being charged differently for the same services.

"I think [the report] is inaccurate because it mixes apples and oranges," Swergold said. "The type of service, quality and level of service one district provides as compared to another is not a factor that goes into his formula, which is strictly a mathematical formula."

Swergold added that in addition to Sanitary District 1's rear-door pick-up, its unique recycling services are "built in" to the cost. The district's residents are not required to separate recyclables from their garbage. Instead, separation of recyclables is done at the district's facility in Lawrence.

Weitzman pointed out that most Town of North Hempstead districts - town and commissioner-run - use private carters to supply the work, costing less than a municipal workforce. However, Weitzman said that if the municipal workforce must be retained, its district's cost to taxpayers can also be restructured. For example, the Town of Hempstead-run sanitary district (including, but not limited to: Bay Park, Barnum Isle, Bellmore, East Meadow, Harbor Isle, Lido Beach, North Lynbrook and Point Lookout) costs $674 on average to homeowners, while the commissioner-run Sanitary District 6 (comprising Elmont, Franklin Square, Garden City South, Lakeview, Malverne Park, South Floral Park and West Hempstead) charges about $974 per household.

"Because of the structure of the commissioner-run districts, there is no transparency or accountability and they are spending more money," Weitzman said.

New York State stopped forming commissioner-run districts nearly 70 years ago, but many remain in Nassau County.

County Executive Tom Suozzi's mission to cut costs by consolidating special districts created a buzz toward the end of 2007. In September, Suozzi reached a verbal agreement with four municipal-run sewage districts that would merge them with the county's system. Only two of the four districts, Cedarhurst and Glen Cove, have officially signed on. The other two districts, Lawrence and Long Beach, continue to mull over contractual details.

By omitting the word consolidation, Weitzman proposed that the towns take over provisional garbage services, but without eliminating commissioners and districts.

Swergold dispelled Weitzman's notion that merging with the town would cut costs. He said Weitzman did not take tax rates into account when computing the figures. According to Swergold, Sanitary District 1 provides the lowest cost to the residents based on the tax rates.

"Our effort is to provide enhanced recycling, try to preserve our present collection methodology and schedule at no substantial increase in cost to our taxpayers," Swergold said. "I think we have managed to hold the line over the years fairly well."

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©Herald Community 2008