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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Four days after the big storm and highways with two lanes still have only one open, and shops along major thoroughfares are losing revenue because no one can come close to parking near a curb. Yesterday, I passed a small street that looked like no plow ever came through.

I grew up in an unincorporated neighborhood. Back in the day, not long after a big snow, town crews using dump trucks and backhoes would clear roads to the curb, dumping large piles of snow in parks and other strategic locations. All winter, kids sledded down the snow hills, sometimes maybe 15 feet high. But the streets, corners and intersections were cleared. Around much of Long Island, this is a lost municipal art. We’re losing institutional memory of how to attack a major snow fall. But there’s more to it. Over the last twenty years, my town has reduced its highway crew by about half, without significant improvements in technology or in deployment theory. It’s just less.

It will be less even more, soon enough.

It’s just now lapping up onto the corners of most Long Island municipalities. Most of our towns, especially those in the solid waste business, have been relative cash cows. This will start to change, as costs outpace revenues. Over the past several weeks, trustees and board members in school, library and other districts received a special education. My school district faces a 13.75 percent increase in health insurance premiums next year (what, we didn’t really fix all that?). On Dec. 15, 2,685 government units in New York had to pay revised pension bills, which will be up by more than a third by 2012, based on expected returns on fund investments.

Back in the 1990s, our school districts were paying one-half of one percent of teacher payroll into the retirement system; later it was zero (employees continued to pay in). Now it’s going back up to 11 percent and everyone’s surprised, like it was a mugging. When I was in high school, districts were paying 23 percent. We’ve had years of warning, years to fix the up and down system. Years to work out better, fairer revenue streams. Now there are no years left.

For a while now, we’ve had unofficial tax caps on Long Island school districts, as expenses got pushed back and shoved down so that proposed budget increases stayed at a few percentage points. There is no room at the back of the closet anymore, and crude oil prices are back up to $90.25 a barrel. To stay at last year’s budget, unless breathing space is found, some districts would have to reduce their workforces by a fifth.

Another shoe fell this past week. Now it’s public, all out in the open. Extreme, influential voices in Washington demand that all 50 states be allowed to declare bankruptcy so that they can unilaterally reorganize their workforces. I point out that almost precisely 200,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties work in the public sector. Cutting that workforce by a fifth would be like losing two Grummans overnight. How many stores will close in your nearest shopping center?

Finally, at long last, everything goes on the table. At least five Long Island school boards have publicly raised the possibility of merging with neighboring districts. For decades, the state pushed detailed plans merging all but a handful of Nassau’s school districts into larger districts, both for financial and educational reasons. The updates of 1957-1958 led directly to the creation of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich and Cold Spring Harbor districts, and indirectly to the North Shore and Plainview-Old Bethpage districts. Everyone survived. Until the early 1960s, we still had a bunch of districts in Nassau County that didn’t have their own superintendents. Everything goes on the table.

I have a cousin, a hedge fund manager, who earned $150 million in 2009, according to published reports. The state tax rate on his income, even with the emergency surcharges and assuming it isn’t all considered merely capital gains, is still 43.6 percent less than would have been when I was in junior high school.

That has to go on the table, too.

 

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net