Town Sanitary District Charges $500 For Release of Records
If you think your property tax bill is high, by reason of the egregious special district taxes for garbage collection, among other not so niceties, imagine how those who seek information under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) feel when they're asked to cough up $500 -- yes, FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS -- for copies of public records maintained by the Town of Hempstead's notorious Sanitary District 7 in Oceanside.
From the very folks who brought you Million Dollar Garbage (the greedy and corrupt officials in the City of Bell have nothing on the folks who bilk the taxpayers at Hempstead Town's Sanitary Districts), comes trash talk, and at a price residents cannot afford.
Garbage In. Garbage Out. That's what they used to stay. Okay, in the Town of Hempstead, and at those outmoded fiefdoms known as the special taxing districts, they're still saying that. Garbage. Piled high upon the taxpayers. Taking good government, and our wallets, to the dump!
Read on. . .
From the Long Island Herald Community Newspapers:
Good-government group wants to take out the town's trash
Works to expose waste and corruption in special sanitation districts
By Lee Landor
Most Long Islanders know -- thanks to pocket-draining experience -- that living here carries a hefty price tag. What many don’t seem to know is that they can change that.
One way is consolidating or dissolving the most fiscally abusive and wasteful special taxing districts -- of which there are more than 200 -- in Nassau County.
And how exactly would they do that?
Thanks to a new state law, the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empower Act, all it takes is signature collection and ballot referendums. Of course, responsible dissolution requires analysis of special districts -- the type of thing that takes FOIL requests (requests by members of the public, made under the Freedom of Information Law, to access records maintained by governmental agencies), audits and lots of digging beneath the surface.
Luckily for concerned taxpayers, there’s a group that is willing to take over those tasks: the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project, a coalition between the Residents for Efficient Special Districts and the Long Island Progressive Coalition. The project, run by Director Andrew Calderaro, has already begun tackling the Town of Hempstead’s five special sanitation districts, submitting FOIL requests to each.
“If I had to sum up the problems in a few words,” Calderaro said of the sanitation districts, “I’d say: tax waste, abuse and unfairness of taxation, in some instances corruption and a lack of oversight. Every taxpayer has a right to know how their money is spent, particularly in an economic climate that’s difficult for not only Nassau County, but the state.”
The Government Efficiency Project submitted requests to Sanitation Districts 1, 2, 6, 7 and 14, asking for a variety of information, including expenditures, tax levies, union and other contracts, employee salaries and benefits, and more. “This is public information ... and the taxpayers have a right to know how this money is being spent, what [the districts’] internal operations include and so forth,” Calderaro said. “These are entities that they’re funding.”
Sanitation Districts 1, 2 and 6 have complied, so far, with the Project’s requests. District 14, which has a small office and few staff members, referred Calderaro to the Town of Hempstead, to which he will submit a FOIL request. District 7 responded to the request in a manner Calderaro called “frustrating.”
District 1, which encompasses the Five Towns and Valley Stream South, provided the documents free of charge. District 2, which includes Baldwin, charged $30. District 6, the town’s largest special sanitation district, which includes Elmont, Franklin Square, Lakeview, Malverne Park and West Hempstead, charged $5.25 for photocopies of 21 pages at 25 cents per page. Sanitation District 7, which covers Oceanside, charged the Project a $500 deposit fee to produce photocopies of the requested documents.
District 7’s attorney, Jerome Cline, reportedly refused to budge on the fee. “When I said that the public has a right to this information,” Calderaro told the Herald, “he stated that Sanitary District 7 ‘has a right’ to request $500 for the FOIL request and that they ‘want that money.’”
Legally, an agency cannot charge more than 25 cents per page for photocopies up to 9 by 14 inches. The fee for records that are larger or maintained electronically is based on the actual cost of reproduction. No fee can be assessed for search or labor for the 9-by-14 photocopies, but for the other records, an agency can establish a fee based on the hourly salary of the lowest-paid employee able to prepare the copies, as well as the cost of the storage media, like a tape or disk.
When asked why District 7 requested a $500 deposit, Cline told the Herald that it would take at least two to three hours to prepare the records and it would cost the district to do so. “We are terribly organized, but [Calderaro’s request] is extensive and somebody’s gotta do it,” Cline said. “We gotta pay somebody and, unfortunately, it’s a very high-priced person that’s available to do this. We don’t have clerks doing this kind of work, so we’d have to pull somebody off what they’re doing to do it."
Cline insisted that his agency could charge for labor for photocopying documents regardless of their size. When the Herald attempted to clarify the law for him, Cline said he would double-check it. “If I’m wrong, I’ll definitely correct my statement to him,” Cline said of Calderaro. “And if we have to do it, we’ll do it.”
Frustrated by his conversation with Cline on Sept. 13, Calderaro had contacted Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York Department of State’s Committee on Open Government, for help. According to Freeman, that was a smart move.
“Unless the request involved at least 2,000 photocopies, the response would have been inconsistent with law,” Freeman said upon hearing of the $500 fee. “So, from my perspective, [Calderaro] did the right thing: He got in touch with this office, I sent a response, which laid out the law, in the hope that it would be passed on to the sanitation district and that they would say, ‘Oops, we didn’t know that. Let’s do our best to comply.’”
Calderaro, too, said he hoped Freeman’s insight would provide clarity to the situation. He submitted a written response to Cline in which he cited Freeman’s comments. Calderaro asked in his letter that Sanitation District 7 re-adjust the $500 fee to follow the law.
As he awaited Cline’s response, Calderaro continued to pursue his objective of streamlining special districts through the Government Efficiency Project. “Really, the power is in the hands of the taxpayer with the new New York Act,” he said. “It empowers the taxpayers.”
For more information on the project, visit www.fixmypropertytaxes.com.
Comments about this story? LLandor@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 205.