You probably don't even know what a special district is. Why should you? Your toilets flush and clean water comes out of your faucets.
A special district is defined as a political subdivision of the state established to provide a single public service within a specific geographic area. Water, sewer, police, fire protection and sanitation are the most critical services provided for the health, protection, and safety of its citizens. I expect the reason most people rarely question the infrastructure and operation of special districts is that they are reasonably satisfied with the services they receive.
You may have seen the headlines that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced there are too many local governments. What he really means is that there are too many special service districts, too many villages and maybe even too many towns in New York State. He is looking for a means to hasten their elimination or consolidate the services into larger entities because he believes consolidation will mean cost savings for taxpayers. I say not so fast.
Essentially he is validating the findings of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness Report whose charge was to make recommendations on ways to consolidate and eliminate taxing jurisdictions, special districts and other local governments where doing so would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of local governments.
The commission was established by former Governor Eliot Spitzer as a means to lower property taxes based on the assumption that regionalized or centralized government is less expensive than smaller, more local specialized entities to provide vital services like sewer, water, parks, sanitation and fire protection.
Governor Paterson's proposed budget identifies several recommendations made by the State Commission. These include expediting the local government consolidation process, eliminating compensation for special district commissioners, providing flexibility to convert town clerks and receivers of taxes from elected to appointed, and transferring the management of sanitary districts to town boards.
Most citizens are not even aware that this language is being proposed as new law through the current budget process. Proponents of consolidation say that the current budget language is only to consolidate garbage districts. But I can't help thinking that the real objective behind removing special district commissioner fees is a de-facto "starve the beast" scenario; the beast being special districts.
For example, I predict that if compensation for locally elected special district commissioners is eliminated, within a few years appropriately motivated people will rarely volunteer to run less than glamorous sewer or water districts. The underlying objective of the State's Commission --- to fold these special districts into a larger entity --- will have been accomplished at the expense of local self-determination and citizen participation. Proven longterm cost and service efficiencies could be lost in many neighborhoods. In the Belgrave Water Pollution Control District (which is a sewer district) commissioner salaries and benefits represent only 2 percent of their total budget. Is pursuit of this small savings worth giving up the predictability of service and local control?
The most important premise of consolidation of services as put forth by the commission is the assumption that tax savings will be realized. I maintain this is still an unproven assumption. And revenues generated by a special district are strictly re-invested in the district and not competing in a general fund with other departments. That competition for funds could result in a potential reduction in services and quality of the infrastructure.
My guess is you may finally figure out what special districts did only after they are eliminated. Of course then you will then have to deal with larger bureaucratic entities for these services.
When the commission was first formed, I asked former Governor Spitzer why he wanted to shut down the special districts in my Assembly District when they are so well operated. He answered because there are many poorly run districts elsewhere in the state, the collateral damage of eliminating those that are well run is justified in order to attain the objective of overall efficiency. I hope that Governor Paterson doesn't agree with this illogic.
The 16th Assembly District benefits from some of the best commission run districts in the county providing parks, sewage, garbage pickup, police and fire protection and ambulance services to name a few. The tax rates for these services are among the lowest in the county for comparable service. Manhasset Lakeville Water District is 57 percent below the American Water Works Association AWWA national average for water rates as are most Nassau County Water Districts. The infrastructure and operations of most North Shore special districts have been judged first rate even by the proponents of the commission's report. And few would argue that response time for local special districts will be more responsive than a more remote regional agency.
The fact that some communities have bungled their own services through poorly run special districts is unfortunate and must be addressed and if need be, eliminated. But Albany must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Their focus must be on recognizing and promoting the cost savings and efficiencies of the well run special districts rather than seeking to destroy them. Any plan for their consolidation or elimination must demonstrate a substantial reduction in costs to taxpayers while maintaining quality and service. Any plan for consolidation must have an idea of how this can be accomplished in terms of operation, management, customer service, infrastructure and fuel costs which so far, in my opinion, have not been demonstrated.
All of us in government have a responsibility to protect the interests of taxpayers for the short and long term. When it comes to providing services one size does not fit all. That is why I hope others will also ask questions. My response to the governor and commission is: before you legislate changes that will lead to the elimination of locally controlled special districts and governments in favor of regionalized bureaucracies, show us a plan and its demonstrated benefits.