Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Special District Relief On The Way?

Don't Hold Your Breath

Newsday reports that the NYS Legislature may be on the verge of proposing legislation that would give voters the opportunity -- essentially, by petition and referendum -- to consolidate or eliminate special taxing districts.

The theory, advanced by Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, is that the ordinary Joe will vote for what's best for himself, and his pocketbook. Local control doesn't get any more local than that!

That theory, of course, went out the window after the third time John Q. Public sent the same folks up to Albany, to do the same job, somehow expecting different results! For all the talk of a taxpayer revolution, from all appearances, voters, if only in a nod to the devil they know, seem to favor the status quo.

Still, giving residents the power to abolish or consolidate special taxing districts, should they choose to do so, would be a move in the right direction, for the long term, albeit one that allows our State Legislators to pass the buck to the people they were elected to serve, rather than to actually serve the best interests of the people by taking decisive action themselves.

As Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos intimates, New Yorkers -- and, in particular, Long Islanders -- need immediate relief from outlandish property taxes, and the outmoded, self-serving means of providing services. Not that anyone in the Legislature is proposing anything remotely designed to do just that.

Such relief can only come by way of mandate of the Legislature. Vox Populi, as democratic as it may sound, will only take taxpayers so far, assuming measures to dissolve or consolidate ever make it to the ballot box.
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From Newsday's Spin Cycle:

Lawmakers back district-merger bill; details sketchy

Efforts to consolidate local governments picked up momentum Tuesday as state legislative leaders announced they were introducing a bill to simplify the process for dissolving the tiny units of government known as special districts.

At a leaders’ conference in Albany focusing on reducing property taxes, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) announced that a bipartisan bill would be introduced shortly — assuring its passage in that house.

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), announcing his support for the first time, said a bill also would be proposed in the Senate. Democrats hold only a two-vote edge there, but several upstate Senate Republicans have spoken in favor of it.

Gov. David A. Paterson also expressed his support, and Silver said the measure could reduce property taxes by 5 to 22 percent statewide.

Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), declined to say whether Skelos supported the legislation, but said: “The attorney general’s plan is one way to achieve long-term savings, but Long Islanders need immediate relief.”

But opponents of consolidation have argued that special districts provide greater local control. Thomas Shanahan, lobbyist for water suppliers on Long Island said, “We’re not opposed to a reasonable system, but we need to see the details.”

Both Silver and Smith said they had been hammering out the details with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who proposed the reform in December after Newsday stories on abuses in special districts.

Special districts handle specific services, such as water hookups and garbage pickups, in specific areas. No one knows exactly how many there are statewide. But on Long Island alone, they collect nearly $500 million a year in tax revenue.

Currently, a Byzantine patchwork of laws makes it virtually impossible to eliminate districts. Cuomo has proposed giving citizens the power to put consolidation proposals on the ballot if they get signatures from 10 percent of the district’s voters, or 5,000 people, whichever is less.

If the referendum passed, the local government would have up to a year to complete the process.

Rosalie Hanson, a Gordon Heights activist who has pushed to dissolve the fire district there, welcomed the bill.

“I’m relieved and happy to hear it because the current petition process is antiquated,” she said. “And what I went through personally I feel that no other human being should endure.”

Gordon Heights residents, who pay the highest fire taxes in the state, have tried twice to dissolve the district. They submitted a new set of petitions to the town of Brookhaven Dec. 31 and are still waiting for the town assessor to review them.

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