Cuomo Spearheads Measure That Would Open Door To Dismantling Of Special Districts
As an addendum to Wednesday's post on Special District relief, could it be that help is on the way, at least in some limited form?
The bill, in its present form, creates a means for consolidating, or even eliminating, local government entities.
Unfortunately, the legislation does not go far enough. It neither mandates consolidation, nor forces the hands of either local officials or the taxing jurisdictions themselves to consolidate voluntarily, absent what could be a lengthy and cumbersome voter referendum process.
Okay. We have to start somewhere. Let this be a beginning, and a message to all local governments that too much is more than enough!
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AG Cuomo: Bill would address 'too many governments'
BY SANDRA PEDDIE
Flanked by seven state legislators, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Thursday rolled out his plan for easing the state's property tax burden by simplifying the process of consolidating local governments.
Speaking before a group of civic activists and business leaders at the Long Island Association in Melville, Cuomo predicted the Legislature would pass a bill that creates a uniform process abolishing or consolidating towns, villages and special districts. Currently, a complicated patchwork of laws governs the process.
"Everyone has been lamenting this system for years, Democrats and Republicans, and nothing changes," Cuomo said, adding later, "Government must rethink its overhead."
Cuomo said his office has counted at least 10,521 local governments in the state - something both state and local officials have blamed for New York's heavy local property tax burden. However, he added that no one knows for sure exactly how many governments there are statewide.
"When you don't know how many governments you have, you have too many governments," he said.
Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), the only state senator among the legislators at the meeting, noted that the actual number of local governments was not important to most people."It's all the same taxpayer," he said. "It's all coming out of the same pocket. It doesn't matter what level of government it is."
Cuomo's bill targets towns, villages and special districts, tiny units of government that handle services such as fire protection for specific areas. Long a source of patronage jobs for political leaders, special districts have come under fire for spending abuses. In fact, Cuomo proposed the reform after Newsday stories on pension abuses and wasteful spending in special districts.
On Tuesday, state legislative leaders in Albany announced their support for Cuomo's bill. That announcement was significant because some legislators, fearing the loss of patronage jobs, initially resisted the reform. But as the legislative session wore on, support grew, partly because the reform would not mandate consolidation.
The bill offers three avenues for consolidating local governments. It would enable county executives to do a master plan to be submitted to a referendum; allow local boards to vote to consolidate; and enable citizens to put the issue on the ballot themselves.
Citizens seeking to put the issue on the ballot would be required to get signatures from 10 percent of the district's voters, or 5,000 people, whichever is less. Once such a referendum passes, the local government would have up to a year to complete the process.
If the local government fails to act on a referendum, a court-appointed monitor would step in and ensure that the referendum results would be followed, Cuomo said.Such legislation would have a profound impact on public policy, said former Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino, an attorney who is representing residents of Gordon Heights seeking to dissolve their fire district."I think this could do for consolidation of special districts and other local governments what the Freedom of Information Law did for openness in government," he said.
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 the petitions.
"It took us six months to get the signatures, and it's taken them five and a half months to not do anything," said Rosalie Hanson, a civic activist who has spearheaded the effort.
Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D- Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) said they had been working closely with Cuomo on the legislation.
Silver announced Tuesday that the bill had a Republican co-sponsor in the Assembly, assuring its passage there. Although Democrats have only a two-vote edge in the Senate, a number of Republicans have expressed support for the bill. That is critical because Smith cannot guarantee that all Democrats will vote for it.
If the bill passes, insiders said, it would be one of the more significant accomplishments of the legislative session, along with the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws.
Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Saint James), who appeared at the Melville meeting, said if the bill does not pass New York should look to the budget crisis in California as its future.
Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who has long advocated reducing the many layers of government on Long Island, said he supports the legislation."This legislation puts the decision in the hands of the people as to what form of government best represents them," said Arda Nazerian, one of Suozzi's senior policy advisers.
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