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Long Island’s Special Taxing Districts

How outraged citizens are dumping the status quo


“I am all for empowering the people but it’s got to be informed consent,” says Schimel.

Andrew Calderano


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Village officials say they’re worried that voters might support a referendum without knowing how much it might truly cost to get rid of their municipality.

“The law is intended to empower the voters,” says Barbara Van Epps, deputy director of the New York Conference of Mayors. “But we would argue that it’s tough to empower them without educating them at the same time,” she says. “So our fundamental concern is the fact that the vote takes place before the study. And we have some real concerns about that.”

The mayors also worry that a bunch of disgruntled citizens emboldened by the low threshold of petition signatures could subject the villages to a constant barrage of harassment. As an aide to one of the amendment’s sponsors said, “Have you ever gone to a town board meeting? Do you know how many crazy people show up? Let’s be honest.”

The aide understood the rationale for the law, but still found fault with it. “If it’s going to be more democratic, fine, but it also took some power away from the local entities themselves.”

Doing that seems to be Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s intention, echoing the time-honored sentiment of Oliver Cromwell, who told the Rump Parliament in 1653, “Be gone, rogues, you have sat long enough!”

In his campaign for governor, Cuomo has a compelling riff on the suffocating layers of the Empire State’s taxing bureaucracies. Take this spiel from his acceptance speech at the state’s Democratic Convention in Rye: “There are 10,000 local governments in the State of New York. Ten thousand! Town, village, lighting district, water district, sewer district, a special district to count the other districts in case you missed a district!”

Given the staggering problems facing our state (another multi-billion dollar budget deficit on tap for next year), it’s unlikely the amendments to Cuomo’s law will rank high on the legislative agenda. But if they do come up for a vote, they might pass, considering that even the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Lisa Tyson wouldn’t mind.

“We have no problem with fire departments and villages being left out of the law,” she tells the Press. “Those are not the special taxing districts we’re talking about. It’s the garbage, the sewer, the water. Those are the ones with the real abuses.”

Her group intends to launch a petition drive to dissolve either Sanitary No. 2 or Sanitary No. 6 later this month, once the local grassroots’ group is ready to hit the street.

Tyson agrees with Schimel’s desire to prolong the study process, finding the 180-day time frame “ridiculous.”
“Governments can’t tie their shoes in that amount of time!” she says. “If they create a crappy plan, then what’s the point? We don’t want to make things worse!”

But she does have one overriding concern, she admits, and it has to do with the ambition of the man himself who helped draft the law.

“Cuomo won’t be in the attorney general’s office next year,” Tyson says. “How much will the attorney general’s office really help if it’s a bad plan? How much will they really get involved?” She says advocates can’t rely on an aggressive comptroller’s office.

“Auditing is great,” she says, “but it doesn’t change policy.”

Some supporters of the Cuomo law like it just the way it is. They say the amendments are intended to water it down for the special interests.

Gordon Heights residents (below) sign petitions (above) to dissolve their fire district.

Sabatino has little patience for those trying to amend Cuomo’s law.

“I’ve tried to understand the arguments that they’ve raised but it’s nothing more than a defense of the status quo,” he says. “I think [Cuomo] did a brilliant job of providing uniformity and simplicity.”

Predictably, Foley took umbrage at that assessment.

“Even the most brilliant laws need improvements!” he counters. “Let me put it this way: I didn’t run for office and spend time away from my family to go to Albany to protect the status quo!”

The People Squeak

One thing that does protect the status quo is citizens’ inertia, and it may work against those who want to put the Cuomo law into action.

“To get people to come out to vote, they have to be angry about something, and very few people are angry about, for example, their garbage collection,” says Weitzman, the former Nassau comptroller. “In fact, we found that most people are very satisfied with their garbage collection—even when we pointed out that they were paying extra money for the same level of collection than other people were paying. It was almost like: ‘Consolidation should take place but not in my backyard!’ But with that kind of attitude we’re never going to be able to do anything about our high tax structure.”

Charles Zettek, vice president and director of government management services for the Center for Government Research in Albany, agrees with Weitzman’s analysis.

“It’s the classic conundrum across the country but it plays itself out brutally in New York State. People complain bitterly about high taxes and yet are not willing to give up the services those taxes are paying for. They want their taxes to be cut by somebody else giving up something but not them.”

Zettek is paying close attention to the efforts to dissolve small villages upstate; two referenda are on the ballot this week, and another is up later this month. Out of a handful of so far, only the one in Seneca Falls passed, 51-49, a “flip of the coin,” Zettek says, adding that research showed that its residents would save about $1,000 a year in taxes. “That’s how powerful the no-change impetus is,” he adds.

“It goes back to Machiavelli: How do you change things?” asks Zettek. “Empowering local citizens is going to make some changes but it’s going to come piecemeal. The fault that citizens don’t take the authority they’ve been given constitutionally and actually act upon it is not the fault of the districts. It’s the fault of the citizens not taking their government seriously.”

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