“They sent me a certified letter of rejection in 2006, so why wouldn’t they send me a certified letter in 2009?” Hanson asks, incredulity rising in her voice.
Subsequently, the town hired Emergency Service Consultants International, a consulting firm headquartered in Oregon with an office in North Carolina, to conduct a $91,000 feasibility study of consolidating Gordon Heights. The study finally began this June, and the final report was supposed to be done by October. But Phil Kouwe, the project manager, told the Press his firm is still waiting for data from the county and the state, particularly regarding Gordon Heights’ emergency response time and the volume of calls, so the study can be completed. He blames “the wheels of government” for the delay.
“I’m not freaking out by how long it’s taking,” he adds.
Nor is Rosalie Hanson, who remains eternally upbeat.
“For the past five years it’s been total dedication,” she says. “It’s time, energy and money out of my own pocket but I feel it’s worth it in the long run. It will give the people in this community a better quality of life because they’ll have more money in their wallets to spend on their families.”
Sabatino has nothing but admiration for the perseverance of Hanson’s group.
“If the average citizen knew what they went through, they’d be held up as heroes!” says Sabatino. “Every obstacle was put in their way.”
The Gordon Heights fire district is still charging its high tax rates, but Hanson’s struggle to reverse course has already produced one stunning success in the realm of real government reform: the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, which became effective March 21. The attorney general’s office reportedly followed up recommendations from Spitzer’s 2007 commission, which had heard Hanson recount her efforts.
“I was told by his office that our plight was the inspiration for him to change the law,” Hanson tells the Press.
“I have to give [Andrew] Cuomo a lot of credit,” Sabatino says, “because he not only saw the issue but rather than grandstanding on it and just having a press release or two like a guy like [Steve] Levy does, he actually followed through and pursued it to its end, and he fought off all the attempts to amend it. And the Gordon Heights story is so egregious it became the catalyst for the reform legislation.”
Pros And Cons
The Citizen Empowerment Act, shorthand for the new legislation, provides three routes to consolidation or dissolution: the county executive and the county legislature can submit a master plan to a county-wide referendum; the taxing district’s own board could initiate the process (as some small villages upstate have done) and put up its plan to a referendum; or the residents within the district could launch a petition drive to get a referendum on the ballot, provided they obtained 10 percent of the district’s voters or 5,000 voters (whichever number is smaller) to sign the petition.
“When a majority of electors vote yes to consolidate,” explains Andrew Calderaro, project director of the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project, set up by the nonprofit Long Island Progressive Coalition to work with grassroots’ groups like RESD to implement the law, “the governing body must meet within 30 days of the certification of the vote and create a plan within 180 days of the certification. This plan is subject to public hearings, must appear in newspapers of general circulation, and must appear on the governing body’s website.”
To repudiate that plan, citizens would have to launch another petition drive but gather more signatures than were required before: 25 percent or 15,000 of the registered voters. If voters reject the referendum the first time it comes up for a vote, there’s a four-year moratorium on any new attempts to dissolve or consolidate the particular district.
In the first week of June 2009, the bill passed overwhelmingly thanks to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who extinguished a push to eliminate fire districts from the law.
But the pushback began immediately. State Sens. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) and Foley, plus Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) have proposed a bill that would exclude fire districts as well as protect towns and villages by raising the required number of petition signatures, prolonging the time-table for government action and mandating that a study of the possible financial impact of the change be made available to the voters as part of the initial process, rather than after the referendum.
“I view the Cuomo legislation as really a threat to the way of life for the residents who live in my district and really for the residents who live throughout Long Island,” says Johnson, whose district includes 33 villages and several special taxing districts. “It’s poorly drafted, it’s poorly constructed, and it won’t really provide any tangible savings.”
Firefighters and mayors want the chapter amendments but for different reasons. Ostensibly the fire districts say that doing away with volunteers would require replacing them with full-time paid fire fighters, which would raise the costs to the taxpayers who dissolved their district, as well as adding to the emergency response time.
“If in the process I might disenfranchise 55 or 65 volunteers, and I have to pay to replace them,” says Kirby Hannan, a lobbyist for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which represents the volunteer fire districts, “then I didn’t save any money. As a taxpayer I want to be able to make an informed decision. And we don’t think the bill does that right now.”