Thursday, December 01, 2011

Yelling "Fire" On A Crowded Island

Special District Elections (Fire, Water) Set For Tuesday, December 13

What if they held an election and nobody came?

Well, here on Long Island, it happens all the time. Every year, twice a year, when elections for Commissioners (the folks who set the budgets for which We, The People, are taxed) of the Special Taxing Districts -- Sanitary, Water and Fire) are held.

Forget all the talk about disolving or consolidating special districts -- the very hobgoblin of local government fiefdoms that take from our wallets and keep on taking. If we can't even muster the will to get out the vote for general elections in November, and School Budget votes in May, what are the chances of a decent turnout for little publicized and hardly noticed special district elections that take place in August (Sanitary Districts -- Ooops. Missed those) and December (Fire Districts and Water Districts)?

Typically, it's the pocketbook issues that bring voters to the polls. The bread and butter. The property taxes. The stuff that Tax Revolt parties would be made of if they weren't the machinations of the very folks who laid those taxes upon us in the first place!

Not so on our Long Island, where special district elections are barely a blip on the radar screen.

Odd, as special district taxes account for more than 30% of the General Tax Levy, and nearly 11% of the total property tax bill, including school taxes.

In fact, as per the Statement of Taxes for the 2011 General Levy, which details County, Town and Special District taxes, the total tax paid per household for Special Districts is actually greater than the total tax paid per household for Town services.

One would think residents would be up in arms, waiting in line one hundred deep, if not to eliminate the special districts, then at least to elect Commissioners who would be held accountable for every last tax dollar they bill us for, down to the penny.

Truth is, most of us don't know who the Commissioners are, and many of those Commissioners (often cronies of the local political club) go unchallenged, both in elections and when drafting a budget, where the only "oversight" (in the literal meaning of the word) is a rubber stamp review by the Town Board.

Hmmm. Wonder how many of our special district Commissioners -- the vanguards of that last bastion of "local control" (or so the folks at Town Hall would have us believe) -- will feel compelled to adhere to the 2% cap on property tax increases?

Yes, the special district Commissioners hold so-called public meetings -- and even make their proposed budgets available for public review, if begrudingly, but who goes and who looks?

This blogger attended recent board meetings at the local Sanitary, Water and Fire Districts, respectively. On all three occasions, there was not another member of the public in attendance. And to say that I was not made to feel welcome would be an understatement.

Sure. Notices of Special District elections, budget hearings, and, sometimes, the budgets themselves, are posted (as they must be, by law) on the Town's website. You'll find Fire, Water and Sanitary, should you be so inclined. [Why, there's even Sewer Districts, if you're feeling particularly inquisitive.]

Frankly, you won't learn all that much from what's posted. Mostly, because the powers that be -- the one's with both hands in your pockets -- really don't want you to know. Still, you have every right to attend the hearings and public meetings, as posted, and, for what these special taxing districts are draining out of your bank accounts, you darn well should.

You can -- and, by all reason, should -- visit the websites of your local Fire Distict, Water District and Sanitary District, where notices of meetings, hearings and, sometimes, proposed budgets are posted for public consumption. [You may have to dig a bit, as "conspicuous" is not a word readily known to district Commissioners.]

There is no consistency, of course. Were you expecting any? Search for Franklin Square Water District, for instance, and you get a single page listing little more than a telephone number, some district trivia, and the fact that the district was the winner of the Best Tasting Tap Water Contest in Nassau County in 1991 and 1994. Many of the special districts do not even have a presence on the web, and where they do, don't expect to find pertinent information -- like dates, times and places for Commissioner elections -- popping up at you from the home page!

We'd say that Long Island residents are being kept in the dark about the goings on at the special districts. Then again, that would be an affront to the dignity of your local Lighting District, which also takes a chunk of cash out of your account twice a year.

Ignorance may be bliss, or so the old adage goes. In the case of the special taxing districts, with their clandestine operations, closely held bonds to the Town under which they conduct business, and private club-like mentality that has the public damned, ignorance -- not to mention apathy and indifference -- has become a burden that We, The People, can no longer afford.

So, mark your calendars. Tuesday, December 13. Water District and Fire District Elections. Find out the what, when, where and how. After all, they're playing with the tax dollars you're paying!
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For more on Long Island's Special Taxing Districts:
Residents for Efficient Special Districts
Long Island Progressive Coalition
Nassau County Government Efficiency Project

The Community Alliance
Common Sense Solutions To Common Community Concerns

1 comment:

  1. The column is a good presentation of the the situation with regard to special taxing districts. As far as I can see, however,the column's focus of complaint appears to be that the general public does not watch the special taxing districts closely enough, i.e., the voters are not sufficiently monitoring and shaping the policies, practices and budgets of, shall I say it, STD's.

    We ought do more than beat the drum calling for people to vote and to attend meetings of public bodies. Time is in short supply for most people. If we want people to become involved at the STD level, we must provide them with understandable facts and figures, if it be the case, showing unnecessary expenditure or inadequate performance, or both. A faith-based approach tends to shore up local districts; it is not an effective approach to urging consolidation.

    I have yet to see RESD, or any other group, post a good dollars and cents analysis or inadequacy demonstration of STDs in the Town of Hempstead.

    In the main, people who live in incorporated villages of Nassau County are not directly involved with STD's since the services in question are provided by their Villages. My suspicion, which I am not qualified to verify, is that Village residents, non-the-less, experience an indirect impact when STDs are inefficient or inadequate. They are one more factor that can materially influence the Nassau County economy.