Holding signs and demanding action, a consortium of civic organizations and residents from throughout Nassau County gathered Thursday in front of a county government building in Mineola to protest a recent announcement from county Comptroller George Maragos regarding his stance on special districts, aka, the more than 200 taxing units—such as water, fire and sanitation, for example—layered within Nassau’s network of county, town and village municipalities.
The more than a dozen protesters, which included members of the Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESDI), Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC), Long Islanders for Education Reform (LIFER), among other groups, as well as residents, demanded Maragos conduct audits of these special taxing districts “and protect taxpayers.”
They raised banners and posters declaring, “April Fools Taxpayers: Maragos Supports Special Districts” and “Stop Special Treatment for Special Districts,” among other slogans, while shouting their message to media outlets and passers by.
“We are here today to tell the comptroller that this new policy is unacceptable,” said Laura Mallay, executive director of RESD. “We the people will not stand by and allow our elected officials to pass the buck. It is the responsibility of our comptroller to act as the fiscal watchdog over not just county government, but special districts as well. Comptroller Maragos must understand that the taxpayers of Nassau County will not allow him to cater to these special interest groups.”
“The happiness has been taken out of Long Island by municipal government that is out of control,” declared Fred Gorman, a local civic leader and founder of LIFER, a school tax protest group. “It’s gotta stop.”
“It’s an outrage,” added Pat Nicolosi, president of the Elmont East End Civic Association. “We cannot afford the tax burden. Our children are leaving, our seniors can’t afford it, we can’t afford it anymore. This is insane—talk about duplication of services!”
The rally was sparked by Maragos’ March 23 announcement that: “The Comptroller’s Office will not be advocating broad consolidation or dissolution of special districts. I have not seen any credible formal analysis that would support the wholesale consolidation of special districts and villages in Nassau County.” Maragos had said his office would not be auditing special districts until possibly next year.
Critics stressed that Maragos’ stance contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Democrat Howard Weitzman, who audited numerous special districts aggressively and discovered “widespread abuse, patronage, mismanagement and financial waste.” One such case in point, they said: Sanitation District No. 7 in the Town of Hempstead.
Weitzman’s “Limited Review of Compensation and Fringe Benefits” for the district, released Oct. 29, 2009, found it was devoid of written policies and procedures covering its election process, had no conflict of interest policy governing employees related to one another, and a “virtually unlimited” leave buyback program for employees, among other taxpayer-costly discoveries.
LIPC Director Lisa Tyson characterized Maragos’ statements and no-special districts-audit policy as a waste of taxpayer funds in itself—and a shirking of his job responsibilities.
“We have to make sure the residents of Nassau County understand that [Maragos] is saying he is not going to do his job, and that’s protecting taxpayers and auditing special districts,” she told the Press. “It’s outrageous for this county comptroller to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’ and, ‘No, I don’t believe there’s a problem,’ which, really, throws away thousands and thousands of dollars the county has spent on doing these audits. They had many staff people auditing for eight years, and so, basically he’s throwing all of that into the garbage—and that’s irresponsible.”
Maragos defended his position in an interview at his office immediately following the rally, saying that participants misinterpreted his words and policy.
“I think that’s just a misunderstanding,” he said of the protest.
The comptroller explained that in light of the state Legislature’s June passage of legislation empowering residents to consolidate or dissolve special districts, the decision to do so should be left up to the taxpayers. Proposed by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Gov. David Paterson made it law. Known as the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, it became effective March 21.
“Certainly when I took office and also during the campaign, I indicated that my policy would be that I would leave it up to the local taxpayer, to the local residents, to decide which districts were not effectively delivering services and were not delivering value, and leave it up to the residents whether to decide whether consolidation or dissolution of the district made sense for them,” he said. “What I indicated [was that] the comptroller’s office would not be leading the charge for countywide consolidation.”
Instead of special districts audits, Maragos said his office’s focus this year would be “to look internally” at various agencies to “streamline” their efficiency—with balancing the budget its top priority. Next year, he added, “we may go back and start looking at some of the special districts again.”
If requested, his office would provide whatever information it could to assist local groups to “put their case forward for consolidation,” he said.
As for Weitzman’s prior work on special districts, Maragos stated: “My analysis of the prior comptroller’s studies that were performed were not supportive of a broad, countywide consolidation effort. Some districts, I pointed out, were being run very, very economically and very efficiently. Others were not. So it wasn’t appropriate for the prior comptroller, I felt, to advocate a broad consolidation across the total county.”
But that’s not what protesters are even asking of Maragos, they charge.
“We are not asking for this office to work toward consolidation, what we’re asking this office to do is to continue auditing and to release the information of these audits, so that we as the citizens and the residents can take our action now to consolidate the ones that are dangerous and then the ones that are doing their job correctly,” said Tyson. “But if they don’t do their job, we can’t do their job. So he’s basically saying to citizens, ‘I’m not going to assist you by giving you the ammunition to see where the problems are.’”
“The audits are absolutely integral to the whole process,” added Andrew Calderaro, director of the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project at LIPC. “And it’s important to know, unequivocally, that those audits showed the waste, favoritism, poor practice and lack of internal control that is conducted in these special districts.”
“We need this office to audit,” continued Tyson. “The special district abuse in Nassau County is the worst in the whole state. And for our one county comptroller who is in charge of this area to say he’s not going to do it is just outrageous, and we have to stop that, so we’re going to do whatever we can to make him get back on to his auditing.”