We can always learn to live with change, adjust to new circumstances, figure out more efficient ways to do things. That’s not what is happening in New York. There is no real Plan B or Plan C. We’re going to white knuckle everything.
Long Island’s schools are “the driving force behind this region’s economic vitality and attractiveness to business.” I stole that line from the Long Island Association, the region’s premier business organization, quoted in a recent L.I. Index report. So we have to get this right. And we’re not.
A cap on property tax increases for schools and local governments is apparently coming. As of this writing, it looks like there will be a cap of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Some raises in expenditures will be exempt, and school districts can have higher budget increases with a 60 percent approval by voters.
The part that I dread the most is that for the next few years we will hear politicians braying about how they’ve solved the property tax problem, reined in taxes, made a big step forward to fix taxes. Two-thirds of Nassau County’s school districts would have come in below the cap if it had been applied to the recent budget elections. This is not relief. This is not reform. This is pretend. This is locking us into a system again that is backwards and upside down, in which tax rates are highest in the neediest districts and lowest in the high-wealth districts, and in which personal circumstances play no role.
So we can all start planning, the budgets of these Nassau districts have been passed by an average of 60 percent or more on the first try across the past ten school budget elections: Bethpage, Carle Place, East Williston, Elmont, Glen Cove, Great Neck, Island Trees, Jericho, Long Beach, Lynbrook, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Merrick, North Shore, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Roslyn, Syosset, Uniondale, Valley Stream 24 and 30. In addition, Amityville, Baldwin, Bellmore-Merrick, East Meadow and Island Park missed this list by less than a percentage point.
Great Neck’s budget averaged 78.1 percent over the last 10 years. Westbury averaged 49.7 percent. Westbury’s budget was defeated on the first try six times over 10 years.
When push comes to shove, some districts will have options. Some districts will begin to pull away. Residents in some districts, a few years out, just may begin receiving shiny, mysteriously-funded mailings touting the benefits of charter schools.
“The Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association took exception yesterday to a statement by Governor Rockefeller that local school boards lacked the courage to levy needed school taxes.” That’s from an article in The New York Times (February 18, 1960). This is how a previous generation talked about their responsibilities to each other and to those who would come next. Governor Rockefeller was pressing hard for his plan to allow school districts to adopt alternatives to real property taxes.
School budgets were approved in 119 out of Long Island’s 124 districts. Some people don’t want you to notice.
61.8 percent of Nassau County school voters cast their ballots to approve proposed budgets, up from 57.6 percent in May 2010. Budget support was up in 50 out of the 58 districts. Support for the budget fell below 55 percent in only six districts, and broke 65 percent in fifteen districts. Overall turnout was down from last year, apparently due to a lack of competitive school board races in too many districts (when school board trustees are continually portrayed as incompetent or corrupt dupes, it’s understandable). However, 144,000 residents participated in Nassau County districts, which is the fourth highest turnout in the 16 elections since we switched back to having all districts vote on the same day.
1. I am a bear of very little brain. I do not understand how, through a decade of near-continual economic contraction and fiscal distress, New York public officials keep finding ways to invest hundreds of millions of public dollars in the construction of venues for major league sports teams.
2. In this new America, if things haven’t broken your way, then we don’t want to hear from you. But if you’re worth eight, nine or even ten figures, we can’t do enough for you. Even if you do not reciprocate our feelings.
1. One year ago, I wrote about the wild, spontaneous race among municipalities across the country to be considered by the Google company as the test community for its experimental high-speed broadband network (“Request for Information” in issues of April 7, 2010). Some of the attempts by local governments and their enthusiastic residents to gain attention and sell themselves to Google and to the country were imaginative, spontaneous and a lot of fun. There were theme songs and mascots. Some communities pooled their resources and formed strategic alliances, and some used the competition as a springboard to greatly expand and improve their Internet presence and online services. Kansas City, Kansas was selected and the network is expected to be available to residents early next year.
1. Some problems need to be addressed and fixed, not just wished away or bandaged up while we hope things break our way and improve. Nassau County is facing an unprecedented and relentless series of challenges not to frilly things hanging around the edges, but to some of the meat that has made this a place to which people moved their families in pride.
2. We’re not really going to fix these things unless we fix our politics.
3. Politics drives our choices, and the people who drive our politics aren’t giving us all the options we need right now. In some cases, we no longer have time to consider every option, which is how you turn a challenge into a crisis.
Last week, Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt suddenly announced that the Nassau County Legislature would immediately begin redrawing the boundaries of county legislative districts, two years ahead of the schedule prescribed by the county charter and by precedent. If we’re lucky, we will have two weeks between the presentation of the proposed district boundaries and the meeting at which the county legislature will vote to approve the plan. Just like that.
This isn’t being imposed by some outside board. It isn’t a reaction to a revenue shortfall. This bad choice is entirely self-inflicted by us, if we let this stand.
If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated pollution at the rate of the mean average American, we would need the productive land and ocean resources of five and two-tenths Earths to sustain our lifestyles. Unfortunately, we only have one Earth available.
It isn’t just Americans. The environmental footprint of wealthy suburbs around the world generally come in at the U.S. level. Great Britain comes in at three planets as a whole, but the suburbs of London are between five and six. A recent study of Cape Town, South Africa, found that the footprint of some of that city’s richest suburbs were so large that 14 planets would be required if everyone lived like them. Americans are not alone in conspicuous consumption, or in a corporate economic environment that measures success in relentless growth. Not just production or profit, but more production and profit. Americans do get some kind of award for making believe it doesn’t matter, and that what is happening isn’t happening. We win that.
1. “In order to earn the public’s trust and begin the process of restoring faith in our government, our elected leaders and candidates for office must commit to reforming our redistricting process. We need nothing less than a completely independent, non-partisan commission in charge…” This is what Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said last year as a candidate for New York State Attorney General. Reform isn’t just needed at the state level.
They left it hanging right out there. $272 million in additional aid to schools is coming from unspecified revenue increases. “Revenue right now is looking good enough that we probably finance the increase from that,” said Governor Cuomo’s budget director. Right now. Probably.
1. Last week, Michigan adopted a new law giving the Governor the power to appoint private companies and consultants as emergency managers of local governments and school districts that are running chronic deficits. These managers now have the power to take complete control of government functions, to cancel labor agreements and to remove elected officials and dissolve local legislative bodies. These powers are utterly unprecedented for a chief executive in North America. Neither our colonial governors, nor the Governor General of Canada, nor President Lincoln during the Civil War had the ability to negate election results and essentially privatize a town or city.
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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com