Local government officials on the North Shore have set a meeting to alert the public about what they perceive as threats to local control and more importantly, local assets from state and county governments that are reeling from huge budgetary deficits.
The meeting is set for Thursday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at E. M. Baker Elementary School, 69 Baker Hill Road in Great Neck. Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and State Senator Craig Johnson are scheduled to speak about their positions on the push to consolidate or dissolve local governmental units.
The latest cause for alarm is a provision in Governor David Paterson's budget that is titled a public health bill and was referred to the Assembly's Health Committee, but included a section that would radically change petition requirements for initiating a referendum for municipal consolidation or dissolution. Under current law, a permissive referendum for voting on consolidation or dissolution of a village, special district, or town is triggered if 60 percent of the registered voters sign a petition to that effect. Under the proposed legislation, 25 percent of the registered voters could trigger a requirement for a permissive referendum. Last year, the Governor's Commission on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness recommended an even slimmer petition requirement, 10 percent of registered voters in a municipality.
The governor's budget also calls for the elimination of compensation of any kind for commissioners of special districts. Specifically, the language in the bill includes the elimination of "wages, salaries, gratuities, vehicles assigned to them, insurance, annuities or retirement plans...but shall be reimbursed for the actual and necessary expenses incurred by them in the performance of their duties." Commissioners of special districts are especially concerned about whether or not the language will be interpreted to include liability insurance.
Great Neck Park District Chairperson Robert Lincoln says, "You've heard one side of the story...about the need to 'reform' special districts...Come hear the other side of the story. For example, do you know that in the Town of North Hempstead there are 22 commissioner-run districts and 19 town-run districts? Which do you think have the highest oversight costs? The average cost for the commission-run districts is $28,922 while the average cost for the town-run district is $109,087. We have other examples like this one that run counter to the drumbeat of charges against special districts."
Another main argument against the dissolution of special districts is that any money from taxes or fees that are paid to special districts is plowed back into upgrading the infrastructure of the districts rather than being funneled off to general unspecific budgets.
At a planning meeting for the Feb. 5 meeting, Don Augenthaler, a commissioner from the Port Washington Garbage District said, "We were audited by the county comptroller's office in '05 and came through with flying colors...We were told that our service couldn't be done cheaper, but that in the name of 'reform' we had to go too...It's like doing away with poorly run districts by dropping a neutron bomb on all of us."
Commissioners at the planning meeting also bristled at the criticisms that districts are run without transparency. One said, "How can the state criticize us with straight faces when they bury a major change for municipalities in a health bill...Hiding legislation is transparency?"
The Great Neck Village Officials president Leonard Samansky called Assembly Bill A00639, a "sneak attack on local government."
The Feb. 5 meeting will be held in Great Neck, but the meeting is open to all residents in the Town of North Hempstead. Baker Hill Road intersects with Middle Neck Road to the west and Station Road to the east.