High property taxes are like the weather. Everybody talks about them, but, with rare exceptions, nobody does anything about them. But at least when it comes to taxes, there are some things we can do to fight back.
As county comptroller, I have a mandate to look out for the taxpayers in every way I can. So, in addition to auditing dozens of county agencies, I have also looked for other ways to save taxpayers money: by lowering the cost of prescription drugs (the NassauRx card); by working with State Comptroller Hevesi to hold school administrators accountable and prevent fraud; by pushing for our fair share of state aid to education; and by auditing garbage collection (sanitary) districts.
These sanitary districts, created by the towns, impose their own taxes, which the town collects. More than a few of them are big businesses with 100+ employees and multimillion-dollar budgets. Yet they have operated for years with virtually no government oversight, until our recent audits.
We've all seen what can happen - see the Roslyn School District - when there are insufficient financial controls and oversight.
My auditors examined five garbage districts: three in the Town of Hempstead, and one each in the towns of Oyster Bay and North Hempstead. The results of the first four audits are in. In three out of four cases they are not pretty.
In the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary District 1, which serves the Five Towns and Valley Stream South, we found an absence of financial controls, outrageous expense account meals, and virtually no timekeeping for a staff of 129. In Syosset, a relatively small district that contracts out its garbage collection, we found inflated payments to commissioners for unnecessary meetings. And in Hempstead's District 2, serving Baldwin, Roosevelt, and South Hempstead, we found millions of dollars wasted on administrative expenses, including unnecessary and overpriced insurance. Meanwhile, the district allowed sanitation workers to work only 15-20 hours a week for a full-time salary. A report on Hempstead's 6th Sanitary District will be issued this week.
Obviously it's no coincidence that taxpayers in these districts pay unjustifiably high rates for garbage pickup - two to three times as much as some other communities pay for the same services. For example, District 2 residents spend about $734 per property owner, to obtain curbside garbage pickup and disposal. In other areas of the county, the cost per parcel is as little as $252.
It's now clear that those who overpay for these services are paying to support wasteful spending that may include bloated payrolls, top-heavy management structures, non-competitive contracts, and lavish meals and business trips.
What should we do? Well, the first step was to shine some light into these previously dark corners of local government. As a next step, I would propose that we create a Nassau-wide task force to evaluate the delivery of garbage services in the three towns and to make recommendations for improvements.
Will we solve the property tax dilemma by lowering the cost of garbage collection? Not entirely. But, although it's hard to lop off $2,000 or $3,000 off your school or town or county taxes, it is possible to save a few hundred here and a few hundred there if we can eliminate wasteful spending at the local level. And, to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirkson, a few hundred here and a few hundred there - sooner or later it adds up to real money.