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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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LIPA: Kissing the Pooch

“Due to the high call volume we cannot assign you a representative. Please try again later.”

By the second week, that’s what LIPA was saying.

In government, there is a direct link between performance and trust. LIPA has lost that trust, and not just for itself. This just sets back everything in our local public weal. Long Island is damaged.

Most of us have grievances, even horror stories, about LIPA, a target almost too obvious and easy to discuss anymore. Everyone understands that part. Hearings and investigations will hopefully spell out the details, and resignations have already started.

We can’t let leaders and decision makers off the hook and allow them to merely score points by attacking LIPA. Others in authority need to do some serious soul-searching about their roles and how seriously they took the idea of disaster preparation, planning and management. The practical, useful performance of our local governments ran a wide gamut.

Some governments were more ready than others and provided small services or information that made things a little easier. Before the storm even hit, a few took down everything from the main page of their website and put up useful and comprehensive storm information, including when garbage and other services would resume. By early Tuesday, with the storm still churning, Huntington announced emergency measures to expedite repairs, including shifting town workers to temporary responsibilities as facilitators. Compare that preparation with the confusion of many Nassau County workers about when or if they should be reporting to work. With winds blowing, and with officials seemingly saying that only emergency and responder personnel should be on the roads, a thousand county workers were swerving around trying to get to open, non-essential offices in the Caso Building in Mineola so they could continue their filing and keyboarding.

Everything has to be rethought. Some of the trees that fell around my block, ripping up sidewalk and even hitting homes, had been marked for removal for a year. Several weeks ago, I watched a crew take much of five working days to replace about 20 feet of buckling sidewalk. Now multiply that by 500, with tax caps. Business as usual is over, and hard.

It is a silver lining that the vulnerabilities in so many systems and procedures have been pushed into our faces, where we can no longer deny them in some kind of mass cognitive distortion. It is sad that this is happening when we no longer have any obvious means to pay for system upgrades and improvements. Before the storm, New York’s budget was already over a billion dollars in the red. The property tax system is in worse shape than it was 10 years ago, when courts said it was legally and officially Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. Municipalities around New York, including most of Long Island’s 15 towns and cities, are already in varying degrees of fiscal distress. Some are now functionally bankrupt.

So we can’t let up, can’t let leaders off the hook. The time for punting is over. Sandy exposed weaknesses, and our system of financing local governments in New York has already spit the bit on the stress tests.

Over the next few weeks, we will consider in this space how we got here, where we came from and what might have been.

When we discuss Nassau County’s old Civil Defense system, I think many will not believe that for years, 50,000 or more residents had some level of training and classification in case of massive disaster. Older residents you know may tell you that they were Block Mothers or neighborhood Wardens. Last week, Nassau County arranged for 200 private electricians to assist in evaluations and repairs. People with those skills used to be part of the emergency network; it was part of the licensing procedure.

But something else comes first, next week. Some credible entity needs to figure out once and for all what it will cost to underground at least the most critical parts of our electrical grid, a controversy that predates the creation of Nassau County itself in 1899.

LIPA was intended to be more than LILCO with a slightly better logo, but that’s the easiest target.

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