Monday, March 16, 2009

What Do We Need? Special District Reform

When Do We Need It? NOW!

From our good friends at Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD). [Yes, we know. There is no such animal as an efficient special district! ;-)]:

Special District Reform is Key to Lowering Nassau Taxes

Nassau County
is unlike most Counties in New York. Over the past 100 years, Nassau has created a multitude of special taxing districts to provide basic services like garbage, libraries, water, and sewers. Many of these special taxing districts are run by commissioners who are elected, often for 3 -5 year terms, by approximately 1-3% of the residents of these districts. Nassau has, by far, more special districts than any other county in New York. The overwhelming majority of special taxing districts in Nassau County are costly, ineffective and contribute to our high property taxes.

These districts are an overlapping mess that encourages unaccountability and confusion for taxpayers. Because of the way they were created in state law, neither the towns nor the County has authority over these special districts. The districts create their own budgets, assess whatever taxes they deem necessary and are accountable only to the small number of people who know about the annual elections that they themselves run.

In 2007, County Executive Suozzi’s office released a study that found that special district elections are held on at least 24 different days every year and there is at least one special district election in 11 of the 12 months of the year. These elections are not widely publicized and there are many examples of elections where only a handful, literally, of voters came to the polls. One special district developed a pattern of holding the election in the Commissioner’s own kitchen. Nassau County desperately needs special district reform.

County Executive Tom Suozzi, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Governor David Paterson have included a number of important reforms in the Governor’s 2009 budget. These reforms are under attack by several legislators and many people and businesses who want to maintain the status quo. County Executive Suozzi, the Hagedorn Foundation, the Long Island Progressive Coalition and a grassroots group called, RESD (Residents for Efficient Special Districts) are building a coalition to fight for these changes.

This group successfully pushed for additional accountability measures in last year’s legislative session. We won some small battles, but the war rages on and we are trying to build a stronger coalition to push these changes through the legislature.

What we need:
We need as many people as possible to call Senator Craig Johnson’s office to explain the importance of special district reform.

The Governor’s 2009 budget currently contains language that does four key things.

It simplifies and unifies the local government consolidation process. This will make it easier for taxpayers to eliminate a special district if they feel like they are not getting the biggest bang for their “tax buck.”

It eliminates compensation for special district commissioners. Fire commissioners and school board members are not paid for their service. Sanitation, water, sewer district commissioners shouldn’t get per diems, dental, vision and health plans, pension plans and other lavish perks.
It makes it easier for special districts to cut down on health care costs by forming cooperative health benefit plans. It simply makes sense to reduce health care costs by buying health care in bulk. The special districts can and should cooperate better to relieve Nassau’s high tax burden.

It transfers the management of sanitary districts to town boards. Some of the sanitation districts are among the most notorious for political patronage, nepotism, wasteful spending, and poor accountability. The towns can and should manage the garbage in Nassau. Recycling programs and other large scale trash solutions will help get the trash trucks off the Long Island Expressway and promote better solutions for Nassau’s future growth.

Sen. Johnson has voted against these proposals in the past, but may be willing to support them in the future. Senator Johnson is great and represents his constituencies well; but he needs to be convinced to support or at least not oppose these legislative changes.

We need to explain to Sen. Johnson that special districts have operated in the dark for too long. They don’t publicize their elections, they shouldn’t receive per diems, health care, and other perks, and they haven’t attempted in any way to reduce costs by partnering with other special districts around them. Nassau County residents love their services, but they can’t afford to pay for governments that fail to provide those services as cheaply as possible.

Consolidating garbage districts would improve recycling rates and save taxpayers millions of dollars. New York State has established a recycling goal of 50% of the waste generated. Recycling rates in Nassau County are significantly below this goal and significantly less that surrounding Counties including Suffolk County. The majority of taxpayers in special taxing garbage districts pay much higher rates than those serviced by the town run garbage districts.

Water is a regional resource. A more regional approach to managing water resources could protect water resources and reduce costs by minimizing water pumping and power costs, dealing more cost effectively with emergencies and contamination issues, and shutting off wells that are more costly to operate.

For Everyone:
This legislation will benefit all Nassau taxpayers especially those in the Town of Hempstead. In general, special districts in the Town of Hempstead have received more criticism for waste than special districts in other parts of the County. Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Newsday have all chronicled the waste, fraud and abuse by special districts. This legislation is critical to ensuring special districts are accountable.

Sen. Johnson’s office can be reached at:

District Office:
151 Herricks Road, Suite 202
Garden City Park, NY 11040
P: (516) 746-5923

Albany Office:
604 Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247
P: (518) 455-2622

What did we pass last year?

Last year, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and County Executive Tom Suozzi pushed for and passed legislation that:

Established a uniform date for public hearings conducted by the board of commissioners on district budget estimates before the budgets are submitted to the town;

Required that budget estimates, annual financial reports, public notices and audit reports are posted on the websites of both the district and of the town in which the district is located; and

Required adequate notice to the public for annual budget hearings including the time, date, location, purpose of the hearing and the availability of an estimate of the proposed expenditures and revenues.
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An overhaul of New York's special districts -- by way of consolidation and, where possible, outright elimination -- would save taxpayers millions of dollars. [And couldn't we all use a tax "bailout" right about now?]

Contact your State Assemblymember, State Senator, County Legislator and Town Council member (Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay). Tell them that the time for special district reform is NOW!

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