Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Are You Cool In Your Code?

Nassau Exec Envisions "Cool Towns"

On the heels of the late spring heat wave, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi is thinking cool. As in "cool downtowns."

Garden City, Rockville Centre, and Long Beach are among the few that, according to Suozzi, have already achieved "cool downtown" status.

Others, not enumerated, have yet to make it to the "cool" list. And some, Suozzi admits, may never be "cool."

We note that most -- if not all -- of the designated "cool downtowns" are within incorporated villages (surprise, surprise), with "potentially cool" downtowns including a few unincorporated areas, such as Farmingdale and Baldwin, said to be on their way toward coolness.

No Elmont on any of Mr. Suozzi's lists, although it would have been way cool if we had a Triple Crown winner at Belmont. [Darn you, Big Brown!]

As for hamlets the likes of West Hempstead, Uniondale, and Wantagh, well, you're working your way toward becoming "automobile-centered communities" (you mean they're not already?), which may be "cool" to car aficionados, but not so much to us advocates of viable, walkable, sustainable downtowns, sans all of those "cool" cars.

So, what's cool in your code? How does your community's "downtown" stack up?

Write to The Community Alliance at and dare to be cool!
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From Newsday:

Suozzi vows to help Nassau downtowns become 'cool'

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi knows cool when he sees it and wants to see more of it in the county's aging downtowns.

Suozzi told about 400 local municipal and business officials at a conference in Rockville Centre yesterday that he plans to make good on a promise he made in his State of the County speech in March to usher in the economic benefits of "cool downtowns."

Downtowns can vary in vibrancy and appeal to residents and visitors, and some of them won't meet his standard of "cool downtowns," Suozzi said, adding that they will be near train stations, with residents living and or working in multistory buildings within walking distance to restaurants and small shops.

"Not all of our downtowns will be cool downtowns. Those that won't be, we will try to help enhance and upgrade," Suozzi told officials from Nassau's towns, villages and cities.

Suozzi is trying to coordinate the many plans for downtown revitalization, but the municipalities and their zoning boards will decide their reality.

Suozzi added three new categories for revitalized downtowns: quaint or historic; potentially cool; and auto-oriented commercial centers.

In the quaint or historic category, Suozzi included Bayville, Roslyn, New Hyde Park and Lawrence. In the potentially cool class, Suozzi put Port Washington, Farmingdale, Syosset and Baldwin. Auto-oriented communities are Plainview, West Hempstead, Uniondale and Wantagh, he said.

Some have already made it to the pinnacle of cool, Suozzi said, naming Rockville Centre, Garden City, Great Neck Plaza and Long Beach.

Sandra Johnson, chairwoman of the Bellmore Chamber of Commerce, told Suozzi her downtown could use his help because young men from a new community youth center on Bellmore Avenue are harassing passersby and restaurant patrons. Suozzi said he would look into it. Farmingdale Mayor George Starkie told Suozzi he and his board want to do the "cool downtown" plan and have been working on it for two years, but can't come up with the money for a serious study.

Suozzi said he would look to see if the county can help.

Staff writer Joseph Mallia contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Albany Needs To Pick Up The Ball On Local Gov Efficiency

And The Long Island Delegation Should Take The Lead

Special District Commissioners serving without compensation or benefits. [Yes, true community volunteers.]

The transfer of garbage collection and recycling services from the Special Districts to the Towns in which they operate. [One Town. One rate. One standard of service.]

Special District Elections all on the SAME day. [What? No more Fridays, Tuesdays, and alternate Wednesday nights in August or December?]

All wonderful -- and potentially cost-saving ideas -- proposed not only to give true meaning to the term, "local control," but to curb (and perhaps bring an end to) the burgeoning abuses that accompany the unbridled proliferation of an unnecessary layer of medieval government.

So, where is Long Island's Assembly and Senate delegation, now that there are real solutions crying out for practical legislation (all supported by Governor Patterson) on the table?

Seems awfully quiet out there, as the legislative session winds down.

Long Islanders should be making some noise, and asking, "Why the silence on local government efficiency?"
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Click HERE to contact your STATE LEGISLATORS
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From Newsday's Editorial Page

LI delegation should step up
Reform bills are withering in Albany, and there's no excuse for that

So many good ideas to reform government spending on Long Island have been raised this season. Yet they are in danger of suffocating in the State Legislature. Most bills can't find sponsors among the Island's many lawmakers.

This situation is pathetic. With gas prices rising, foreclosures growing and all of us watching our pennies, the State Legislature should do its part and pass bills to limit special taxing districts.

First, lawmakers should eliminate pay and benefits for district commissioners. Long Island is the only place in New York where these people are paid; elsewhere, volunteers serve out of civic duty. This measure alone would cut off the blood supply that feeds the greed. Some commissioners receive full pensions, fully paid medical benefits, cars and even homes.

This reform was suggested by the state Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, and originally incorporated in former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's budget. Senate Republicans opposed it, and it would have died there, had Gov. David Paterson not adopted it.

He added another reform, shifting responsibility for sanitation cleanup to towns. But as of now, not one elected official from Long Island will sponsor this bill in the legislature.

What did we put them in office for, anyway?

Another bill, pushed by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, would require special districts to post their financial information and meeting dates on their town's Web site. Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Assemb. Sam Hoyt (D-Buffalo) are sponsors.

A final effort is Suozzi's plan to reduce the confusion of 22 special district elections, to coincide with either the May school vote or the general election in November. The current arrangement not only guarantees low turnout but promotes voter intimidation. One election was held in the commissioner's kitchen. Is this any way to run a democracy?

The Suozzi plan also needs sponsors. And, by the way, we're still waiting for action on school pension double-dipping, as well as a halt to part-time consultants qualifying for school pensions.

Something is seriously wrong with our representation in Albany if, now that the problem's been diagnosed, Island residents cannot receive the medicine we need to make it better.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

State Comptroller To Address Nassau County Civic

DiNapoli To Discuss Fiscal Issues Impacting Upon All New Yorkers

"The government is us; we are the government, you and I."
--Teddy Roosevelt

From our friends at the Nassau County Civic Association:

General Meeting Notice

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Meeting Location: Rockville Centre Library, 221 North Village Avenue, Rockville Centre, NY

Our Guest speaker, NYS Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli

Thomas P. DiNapoli was sworn in as the 54th Comptroller of the state of New York on February 7, 2007. As Chief Fiscal Officer for the State, he is responsible for managing and protecting the State pension fund, auditing the spending practices of all State agencies and local governments, reviewing the New York State and City budgets, reviewing and approving all State contracts, and administering the State Oil Spill Fund.

Since taking office, Mr. DiNapoli has instituted several reforms at the Comptroller’s office to ensure open and honest government. He has aggressively moved to end the practice of reporting private attorneys as school district employees in order to receive pension and medical benefits. He has been critical of excessive state spending and has called for capping the level of state debt.

Operating in a bi-partisan manner, Tom DiNapoli has advocated for the taxpayer as an independent voice in Albany. He will discuss the current fiscal issues facing New York and his reform agenda.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

First Read: Property Tax Panel Recommends 4% Cap

And That Provides School Property Tax Relief, How?

A cap on school property taxes of 4% annually.

No local vote on the school budget unless the proposed budget increase is greater than 4%.

The "banking" of the difference between the actual budget and the 4% cap, for possible add-on in future years (with the proviso that there be a cap on the cap).

Is this the NYS Commission on Property Tax Relief's idea of giving the taxpayer/homeowner a break?

Where's the "relief" here?

Quite frankly, we don't see anything to be gained by the proposed cap (most school districts on Long Island came in well under a 4% increase this year, anyway), and taking matters out of the hands of the voters certainly doesn't speak much for the much-touted local control.

Wasn't the whole idea of establishing this Commission in the first place to explore ways, and find the means to, LOWER school property taxes?

Has not the Commission simply sat on the ball, time having run out on the clock? Heck, a Hail Mary pass would have at least given us some hope.

To be fair, we've only given the Commission's rather lengthy Report a cursory review, having had little time to digest same in its entirety.

Many of the Commission's premises are valid, and the suggested remedies, reasonable.

This includes the recommendations to get a handle on those pesky mandates, both funded and unfunded, and to evaluate pensions, consider salary caps for superintendents, and the adoption of the recommendations of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, all of which impact greatly upon school district costs.

That said, in gleaning the "highlights," we are left to wonder whether the State Legislature wouldn't be exercising prudent judgment in putting a lid on that proposed cap, this in favor of a more strident effort to come up with a way to fund public education other than the local property tax, and to provide something in the way of actual tax relief.

In short, the "reform" here leaves us wanting for more, and the "relief" proferred is but more of the same as suggested in years gone by, only by a different name.
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Summary of the Commission's Preliminary Report:

The Property Tax Cap: The Commission proposes capping annual growth in the
property tax levy at 4 percent or 120 percent of the Consumer Price Index (CPI),
whichever is less. New construction, which results in an increase to the tax levy, may be
added to increase the capped amount. Any levy not used may be “banked,” to be used in
future years at a rate not exceeding 1½ percent of the prior year’s levy. School districts
that do not exceed the cap would no longer be required to submit their budgets for an
annual vote. If a school district wishes to exceed the cap, a positive vote by at least 55
percent of the voters would be required to override the cap. If a school district has
received a 5 percent or greater increase in state aid, 60 percent of the voters would be
required to override the cap. This 5 percent number is not intended to suggest that 5
percent growth in state aid is sufficient for high need districts.

The STAR Circuit Breaker: The Commission recommends that, after a property tax
levy cap is adopted, the State reexamine the STAR program, which provides payments to
school districts with no relation to individual taxpayers’ ability to pay and has failed to
effectively reduce property tax growth. A new STAR circuit breaker, targeted to relieve
the tax burden on individual taxpayers based upon their income and ability to pay, would
be a much more equitable way of reducing an individual’s property tax burden. A levy
cap is necessary to ensure that property tax growth is restrained for all taxpayers,
including businesses. A circuit breaker implemented after a cap has been enacted ensures
that, in addition to limiting property tax growth, individual relief is targeted to people
most in need. The STAR circuit breaker is the only Commission proposal which has a
cost to the State. Recognizing the financial pressure faced by the State, the Commission
recommends redirecting at least $2 billion from the ineffective STAR program to a more
effective circuit breaker.

Changing State Law and Mandate Relief: The Commission recommends that the
State support school districts’ efforts to rein in the costs of salaries, pensions and health
care, as well as general operating and capital expenses by changing state law. There are
three categories of proposed solutions:

I. New Recommendations to address the root causes of high property taxes:
• No new legislative mandates without a complete accounting of the fiscal
impact on local governments, which must include full documentation, local
government input and proposed revenue sources to fund the new mandates.
• No new regulatory mandates from the State Education Department without
a complete accounting of the fiscal impacts on local governments, which must
include full documentation, local government input, and proposed revenue
sources to fund the new mandates.
• Mandate accountability through an annual report from the Office of the
State Comptroller, which should include the cumulative cost to localities of
complying with all new regulatory and legislative mandates.
• Amend the Triborough provision of the Taylor Law to exclude teacher
step and lane increments from continuation until new contracts are
• Centralize and streamline school district reporting.
• Create a Commission task force on other State mandates to research other
reforms between now and the Commission’s final report (December 1, 2008).

II. Adopt twelve recommendations from the Commission on Local
Government Efficiency and Competitiveness (LGEC), including:
• Regional collective bargaining
• Health insurance contributions
• Health benefit trusts
• Non-instructional service consolidation through BOCES
• School district consolidation
• Wicks Law reform
• Procurement reform
• Countywide property tax assessment

III. Recommendations supplemental to the LGEC report:
• Require school districts to report collective bargaining outcomes to the
Governor’s Office of Employee Relations and in their budgets.
• Convene a study to evaluate creating a new Tier 5 pension system.
• Rescind the BOCES district superintendent salary cap.
• Create a BOCES statewide energy program.
• Establish uniform statewide assessing standards.
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Click HERE to read the full Report of the Commission
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From Newsday:

Panel recommends capping school taxes at 4%

A state commission Monday recommended capping at 4 percent annual increases in school property taxes, and requiring the approval of more than half of voters to exceed this spending limit.

In a 113-page report, the Commission on Property Tax Relief urged the State Legislature and Gov. David A. Paterson to adopt the property-tax cap as a means of dampening homeowners' anger at their escalating property tax bills.

The commission said in return for increasing levies by 4 percent or less school districts would no longer be required to submit their budgets for voter approval. Such votes would only occur in districts that want to exceed the cap.

To do so would require approval by at least 55 percent of voters. And if the district received an increase in state aid of 5 percent or more and still wanted to override the 4 percent cap, 60 percent of voters would have to agree.

School districts that don't exceed the cap and increase taxes by less than 4 percent per year would be able to "bank" the percentage between their levy and 4 percent for use in future years.
However, districts could not surpass the previous year's tax increase by more than 1 1/2 percent.

"Our recommendations, if adopted, would control the rate of school tax increases, provide overall property tax relief based upon a homeowner's ability to pay, and amend state law to help manage expense growth for school districts and local governments," said Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, the commission chairman.

"At the same time, we believe that reducing voter anger over school taxes will help redirect New Yorkers' attention toward maintaining and improving educational quality. Additionally, providing greater control over expenses to school districts and other municipalities will help redirect resources where they may most effectively impact educational quality."

The property-tax cap is similar to one instituted in Massachusetts and ardently opposed by school boards, superintendents and the powerful teachers union, New York State United Teachers. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D- Manhattan) has expressed reservations about a cap, saying improving the quality of instruction must be paramount.

After a property-tax cap is adopted, the commission suggested retooling the STAR rebate program to direct rebate checks to low- and middle-income homeowners. This so-called "circuit breaker" would be tied to residents' ability to pay property taxes. It would cost about $2 billion per year.

The commission also called for limiting new state mandates on localities and adoption of recommendations from another state commission aimed at consolidating some school operations such as purchasing and countywide property tax assessment.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

Monday, June 02, 2008

More Park Sausages, Mom


We all know about the pork barrel spending for pet projects that comes out of Washington (as in that famous earmark for a "bridge to nowhere"), and those formerly secretive member item grants that came out of Albany are now beginning to see the light of day (Project Sunlight), but do you know what your County Legislators have been doling out in their districts?

Not all of the spending is untoward. In fact, much of it, if not most, is warranted, and truly benefits the good of the greater community.

Still, in light of past wasteful and arguably inappropriate spending of the taxpayers' money, scandals as to where these expenditures have gone (ala the NYC Council), and a long history of what can only be categorized as "shush money" (as in, "don't tell anyone we're using tax dollars to refurbish a private club"), it would be nice -- and should be required -- that we, the people, know how, when, and where our tax money is being spent.

Full disclosure should be the norm, not the exception!
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From The New York Times:

They’re Grants to Some, Pork Barrel to Others


WITH $9.8 million in taxpayer money to spend at their discretion, Nassau County’s 19 legislators are in an enviable position as they look to do good and win friends.

Past grants have gone for capital projects, like signs congratulating high school athletic teams for successful seasons, a fire department monument, permanent playground equipment for schools, and road and sidewalk improvements. Now, based on a recent legal opinion, the legislators can hand out the money for a wider array of projects, including security cameras, scoreboards, trees and athletic equipment.

And the Legislature’s presiding officer, Diane Yatauro, wants to spend all that discretionary money, about $6 million of it carried over from previous years, in 2008. “My goal this year is to have a zero balance at the end of the year,” she said.

As Nassau legislators decide how to dole out their money, Suffolk’s 18 county legislators have $630,000 to divide among nonprofit organizations. The grants also aid community groups that care for the indigent and working poor.

The Nassau and Suffolk legislators’ programs are Long Island’s version of pork-barrel spending, akin to earmarks that members of Congress attach to federal spending bills or the member items long dispensed by the New York State Legislature. Government watchdogs say such programs can be wasteful because the grants are given on an ad hoc basis, without planning or an assessment of community needs.

There can even be legal questions about earmarked money. For example, federal and city investigations have begun looking into spending practices of the New York City Council; the office of the speaker, Christine C. Quinn, appropriated millions of dollars to nonexistent organizations, routing the money to groups favored by individual council members.

Oversight of the Long Island programs varies by county. In Nassau, legislators’ grant proposals are vetted by the Department of Public Works, which oversees the county’s capital program, and by the county attorney’s office. In Suffolk, the legislators’ requests are reviewed by the legislators’ legal and budget staffs.

Critics say such programs provide opportunities for politicians to boost their community image and woo voters by commandeering funds for cherished projects.

“It buys political support for them,” said Ester R. Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University. “It gives them something to take credit for on Election Day.”

But there are also strong supporters of the programs. “Some people say there’s something wrong with a politician giving money to a Little League or a museum,” said Edward J. Morris, the executive director of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, whose group received $8,000 in 2007 to pay for part of his assistant’s salary. “Well, I think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”

The Suffolk Legislature and County Executive Steve Levy have wrangled over the grants, called the Community Service Initiative Program, since the Legislature removed the program from the administration’s oversight in 2006.

In 2007, the program made grants totaling $540,000. They included $1,281 for sandwiches for elderly bingo players at St. Francis Cabrini Roman Catholic Church in Coram; $2,015 for shoes for the Walt Whitman High School marching band; and $10,000 for the Lake Grove Triangle Soccer league, which included $2,380 for 400 “light-up” Lucite trophies and $1,745 for soccer balls.

The Greater Patchogue Foundation received $3,679 to irrigate the Lakeview Cemetery in Patchogue, where the caretakers wanted to improve landscaping around a 1909 monument to the Smith family, who date to Colonial days.

Mr. Levy criticized the cemetery grant, saying it served no purpose for the county. “The umbrella has gotten so big that everything and the kitchen sink is now fair game, and that’s where the wasteful spending comes in,” he said.

But Legislator Jack Eddington, a Working Family Party member from Medford who sponsored the grant, said its purpose was to honor those who had died. “We are trying to take care of the future, but can’t forget about the people who made us who we are now,” he said.

Several Suffolk grants went directly to churches. St. Louis de Monfort Roman Catholic Church in Sound Beach used a $2,000 grant to buy 80 food vouchers valued at $25 each to hand out to the poor. St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Center Moriches received $1,750 for its youth group; the money helped buy a movie projector and 71-inch screen that the church’s grant application said was needed for youth education films.

Legislator Edward P. Romaine of Center Moriches, a Republican, who sponsored the grant for St. John the Evangelist, said the youth education there was of a secular, not religious, nature. “It serves a public purpose, it doesn’t serve religion,” he said of the grant.

While the Suffolk grant program ties lawmakers to community groups, the Nassau Capital Revitalization Program links the county with its many municipalities, school districts and fire departments. It allows $200,000 in grants a year for each legislator (10 Democrats and 9 Republicans), for $3.8 million in all.

Peter J. Schmitt, a Massapequa Republican and the Legislature’s minority leader, said the program encouraged bipartisan cooperation at the county offices in Mineola and helped County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi gain support for the entire capital program. “We are happy with nine-nineteenths of the money,” Mr. Schmitt said.

In 2007, the program provided $30,000 to the Town of Oyster Bay for 114 decorative street signs in East Norwich, $2,500 to the North Merrick school district for trash cans at the Camp Avenue School, and $50,000 to the Town of North Hempstead for trees. There was also $34,000 for thermal imaging cameras for several fire departments, $80,000 for a kitchen at the Farmingdale Fire Department, and a grant for 13 signs congratulating Nassau County high schools for the accomplishments of sports teams. Many of the signs, which cost about $350 each, included the names of Mr. Suozzi and the legislator who sponsored the grant.

Judith A. Jacobs, a Nassau legislator who, with unspent money from previous years, gave out $396,000 in grants last year, said she reviewed requests from constituents and developed her own priorities because “I may discover something I believe — from my living there — is a necessary capital improvement for the community, and I’ll put that in.”

Jon D. Cooper, a Suffolk legislator, said that in choosing among nonprofit groups, he generally favored those in his district. Mr. Cooper, a Lloyds Harbor Democrat, gave out 24 grants last year totaling $33,381, including ones for youth sports clubs, an art museum, a food pantry, a veterans’ group and an animal adoption center.

One Suffolk legislator, Thomas F. Barraga of Islip, said he does not make grants. “It’s not my function to toss around money to support nonprofits and Little Leagues,” said Mr. Barraga, a Republican. “I have some groups very unhappy with me. They’ll get over it.”

A $70,000 Capital Revitalization Program grant to replace door knobs and make bathrooms accessible to the handicapped in the Great Neck school district was recently rejected by the county attorney’s office because it would have served only students in the school, not the broader community, said Charo Ezdrin, Nassau’s director of government relations.

To speed up spending this year, Ms. Yatauro has adopted the Nassau Republican method of allocating the funds by caucus rather than by individual legislator. No longer will each Democrat be given $200,000 to dole out or be able to carry over any unspent money to the next year. Instead, the entire Democratic caucus will compete for $2 million, with Ms. Yatauro and her staff determining which projects to finance.

“Everybody will submit projects to me,” Ms. Yatauro said. “Some legislators may need more, some may need less.”

The change does not sit well with Ms. Jacobs, a Woodbury Democrat who served as the Legislature’s presiding officer from 2000 to 2007.

“That brings politics into it, not the needs of the districts,” she said. “I never did that. With a 10-to-9 majority, you want every legislator to shine.”

But Ms. Yatauro said that she wants to find good projects and finance them. “I’ll make sure our 10 legislators are served properly,” she said.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company