Written by Carisa Giardino Tuesday, 09 June 2009 15:26
A frantic email made its way around Garden City Memorial Day weekend, urging residents to act and act fast. The email spoke of legislation that would streamline the process to dissolve villages, towns and special districts and pleaded with residents to contact their local assemblymen and senators to vote no on the proposed bills.
But on June 1, the Assembly approved the bill (#A8501) by a vote of 117 to 26. Days later, on June 3, the bill passed the Senate (#S5661) by a vote of 46 to 16. As of press time the legislation was waiting for Governor David Paterson’s signature.
Introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, at the behest of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and sponsored in the Senate by Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, proponents say the legislation – dubbed the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act – is a “bipartisan legislative initiative” aimed at reducing costs for taxpayers by encouraging local government efficiency through consolidation.
“It will be unbelievably devastating to our village and to other towns and villages around us,” the email read, adding that the legislation is “fraught with issues that have not been properly reviewed or discussed.”
Brian Daughney, president of the Estates Property Owners’ Association (Estates POA) added, “Whether or not you like all or some of the trustees or the current system, I think you all would not want Nassau County or Albany taking over your local government.”
Daughney, who, along with fellow Estates POA member Manny Velez and Mayor Robert Rothschild, attended an emergency meeting of the Nassau County Village Officials Association (NCVOA) held in Mineola in late May.
In part, the bill states that the filing of a petition containing the signatures of at least 10 percent of the electors or 5,000 electors (whichever is less) in each local government entity to be consolidated or dissolved triggers the citizen-initiated process. For small entities with 500 or fewer electors, the petition can contain the signatures of at least 20 percent of the electors.
Further, the petition requires a referendum to be held in each of the entities. If a majority of the electorate in each entity votes in favor of consolidation or dissolution, then the entities' governing body or bodies must meet and develop a proposed written plan to implement the voters' decision, followed by the plan's publication and public hearings.
Consolidation or dissolution takes effect when the governing body or bodies approve a final version of the plan. However, citizens may, within 45-days after the plan's final approval, petition for a permissive referendum on the question whether the plan should take effect. To compel such a referendum, the petition must contain the signatures of at least 25 percent or 15,000 electors, whichever is less, in each local government entity to be consolidated or dissolved, the bill reads.
“There is fear that this action is being taken so that villages can intentionally be dissolved by pro-active action of certain already interested parties,” Daughney wrote. “The ‘fake’ is to advertise that the bill will provide for fewer villages and more consolidation so that bigger government can solve cost overruns and rising taxes.”
Daughney continued, “The truth is that they are making it easier for many things to get done without involving local residents and villages - such as The HUB, the LIRR and other development projects out there ... It is set up so that all of our tax revenue goes to a larger bucket to be better spread around. There will be no lower taxes, just lower property values, and loss of control or voice. As an example, Garden City would have no say or input on the Hub/Lighthouse. If they want to put a train through the village to get it from Mineola to the Lighthouse that will be Albany's decision - not ours!”
The bill states: “Indeed, the astounding number of local governments in New York has contributed to the rise of local real property taxes. Throughout the state there are large pockets of overlapping taxing entities ... Nassau and Suffolk Counties combined have over 340 special districts…”
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said the legislation “empowers taxpayers, local officials and counties to reorganize outdated and inefficient local governments and establishes uniform, user-friendly procedures for local governments to consolidate, or dissolve, so localities may enhance their delivery of services, achieve financial savings and reduce local property taxes.”
The bill specifically applies to towns, villages, districts, special or other improvement districts, library districts and other special districts created by law. It does not, however, apply to school districts, city districts and special purpose districts counties have established under local law.
Attorney General Cuomo hailed the Assembly’s and Senate’s passage of the legislation: “I applaud Speaker Silver and Minority Leader Kolb for working together to pass a truly historic piece of legislation … For more than 75 years, the issue of government consolidation has been examined and studied to death. Now, thanks to strong leadership in the Assembly, New Yorkers are one step closer to having the power to initiate real reform in their communities and lower their tax burden. I look forward to the measure’s swift passage in the Senate.”
Cuomo added, “I commend the state Senate for taking action on such a critical issue … New York is now at an historic crossroads decades in the making. Taxpayers may soon be truly empowered to create long overdue efficiencies in local governments and special districts across our state. I thank the governor for his support throughout the process and I look forward to this bill finally giving New York’s overburdened taxpayers the ability, where appropriate, to streamline their local governments and cut their property taxes.”
The attorney general said the state’s overlapping governments saddle residents with the nation’s highest local taxes. The proposal will not mandate consolidation. Rather, it restructures the law to allow citizens, local officials and counties to make the decisions themselves.
In all, Cuomo notes that there are more than 10,500 governmental entities imposing taxes and fees across New York State. This includes towns, villages, districts and special districts such as water, sewer and lighting districts.
Senator Craig Johnson voted no on the bill because he didn’t believe it’s in the best interest of his 7th District constituents.
“While I am in favor of empowering residents to determine their own future, I believe that many parts of this measure are fundamentally flawed and contain too many pitfalls,” Senator Johnson said. “Taken as a sum of its parts, it is my belief that this legislation will inflict harm on our communities.”
Senator Johnson believes this is especially true in regard to local fire departments: “These brave men and women volunteer their time and put their lives on the line to protect their neighbors and their neighborhoods.”
The legislation gives counties the authority to force a referendum on abolishing local governments, including fire and other public safety districts, Johnson said. At first, Senate Republicans amended the legislation, exempting fire districts. But Senator Johnson said that the proposed exemptions did not include fire protection districts and village fire departments.
With 33 villages in his district, the senator also criticized the low voter threshold. He disagrees that a referendum based on the signatures from one out of every 10 people living within a local government reflects democracy. “A low petition threshold leaves many of smaller government entities open to the whims of either a disgruntled few or the agenda of an outside organization,” he said.
Johnson said the bill would also allow outside people or groups to organize petitions to abolish or consolidate local governments. He thinks it would be more prudent to require all petitions be carried by residents of the municipality under consideration.
“The measure's language also allows an open ended petition process – meaning that a petition drive could start now and last 10 years in order to get the required number of signatures,” he added. “There is no provision to include towns in the process, and if a local government is abolished, it is unclear which entity would assume zoning authority and other powers -- as counties do not provide many local functions.”
For more information about the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act and to view an interactive map detailing special districts in New York State by county, visit www.oag.state.ny.us. For additional information, visit www.assembly.state.ny.us and search bill #A8501 or visit www.nysenate.gov and search bill #S5661.