Laura Mallay is the executive director of Residents for Efficient Special Districts, a nonpartisan grassroots group based in Baldwin.
Long Islanders are less supportive than other New Yorkers when it comes to consolidating local governments. That was one of the findings by the Dyson Foundation, in partnership with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, in a report released last month.
That sentiment will be used to justify attempts by Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) to weaken a law providing residents a way to consolidate local districts. But when you consider that there are more local governments on Long Island — and residents pay more in property taxes to these entities — than anywhere else in New York, it’s an odd finding.
In addition to the county, town and village governments supported by property taxes, there are hundreds of special taxing districts across Long Island, providing such services as sanitation, water and fire.
The Town of Hempstead alone has five sanitation districts, not counting its own sanitation service. These six entities provide almost identical services to around 800,000 people, all within one town. Last year, a home assessed at $400,000 serviced by the Town of Hempstead paid $267 in sanitation taxes, while an identically assessed home in Sanitation District 2 paid $509. Special taxing districts create and sustain such inequities.
Why wouldn’t Long Islanders want to address this? They may not know that they can. The Dyson report found that 86 percent of New Yorkers have heard little or nothing about consolidating local government. Even though there have been numerous articles detailing the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of local government, many residents remain unaware of the issue.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many Long Islanders who don’t know that the vote for their local school boards and budgets is held on the third Tuesday each May — which is understandable, given that 65 percent to 70 percent of property taxes fund the schools here. Yet how many people know when their sanitation district election is? Special district elections are held on at least 24 different days in Nassau County, with at least one special district election occurring in 11 months each year. Even within the Town of Hempstead, elections for the different sanitary districts fall on different dates.
When people do remember to vote, the counts are desultory. In the last Sanitary District 6 election, in 2010, only around 200 votes were cast. The same year, more than 2,800 votes were cast in West Hempstead alone for the school budget and board election. The sanitation election numbers are even more anemic when you consider that the district covers West Hempstead, Franklin Square,Elmont, Garden City South, Lakeview, Malverne Park and South Floral Park — an area vastly larger than the West Hempstead School District. It’s no wonder most local governments on Long Island operate with virtually no public accountability.
Where could this all lead? Just look upstate, where the local economy has been slowly decaying for years. People have left because of high property taxes and a lack of good paying jobs. That leaves fewer residents to pay for the multiple levels of government that exist there. As the property taxes increase for those who remain, more people leave — creating a downward spiral.
Long Islanders can do something to avoid that vicious cycle. The New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, written by former Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, gives residents a mechanism to consolidate local governments if a majority of voters want to do so. The legislation empowers citizens across the state to initiate the consolidation and dissolution of local government through a petition process, and makes the proceedings subject to a popular vote. The Fair Harbor Fire District and the Lonelyville Fire District on Fire Island have begun the consolidation process under the new law.
Unfortunately, the Martins bill, which has passed the Senate, and Schimel’s Assembly bill would greatly diminish this law. The governor should veto the legislation if it gets to his desk.
If Long Islanders are truly serious about lowering their tax burden, consolidating local governments and services should be part of the effort. Residents have the power. It’s up to them to take responsibility and decide what kind of future they want for Long Island.