On the bitterly cold evening of Feb. 5, a feisty crowd of approximately 400 people filed into Baker Hill Elementary School in Great Neck to speak out on perceived threats to local levels of government and to listen to the views of Albany representatives, NYS Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and NYS Senator Craig Johnson, and Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman.
While a cross-section of divergent views were expressed, there appeared to be consensus that any changes to special districts, and procedures for consolidation or dissolution of local governments or changes to the appointment vs. election of officials should be openly and honestly debated in the public arena and that any resulting proposed bills should not be buried in the legislature's thick, difficult-to-read budget package.
Robert Lincoln, chairperson of the Great Neck Park District's board of commissioners, welcomed the assemblage by saying, "Nobody wants to take our parks away from us...we are talking tonight about a bigger issue...We want to create a dialogue in the light of day about any changes to local government rather than in the shadow of midnight...the issue of compensation for special district commissioners, perhaps that needs to be addressed or changed, but there needs to be an open discussion about it...this proposed legislation is coming through the back door and we fear it sets the stage for more legislation to come that would weaken local control." He introduced the state representatives by saying, "Michelle and Craig are not our adversaries...they're on our team."
Assemblywoman Schimel, who wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in local newspapers and in Newsday defending special districts, said, "You can agree or disagree with me...that's fine, but if we are going to change the landscape of local government, there has to be openness."
She also noted that the governor's budget contains a provision to make the positions of town clerk and town tax receiver an appointed position rather than an elected position. Having served as the Town of North Hempstead clerk, she is adamant that it needs to be an elected position, accountable to the people, rather than to a political boss. Ms. Schimel, with a nod to Supervisor Jon Kaiman who was in the audience, said, "I'm not talking now about the Town of North Hempstead, but I do know of a town clerk who was asked to change an official vote in the record a few days after it had taken place which she refused to do. How long do you think she would have been on the job if she had been appointed?" She expressed her dismay that when she brought up the matter with fellow legislators, many of them did not know about the add-ons in the budget bill.
Senator Craig Johnson noted, "I'm here tonight to listen to you." He went on to add that while he had served on the clumsily named New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness (which even members have a hard time remembering), he perhaps voted against more of its recommendations than anyone else on the commission. He did say that there are different needs around the state and that since the upstate areas have been suffering economic woes with lost jobs for years, some areas there urgently feel a need to make the process of revamping government structures for more efficiencies a more streamlined process. He said, "We have to find what works where." The challenge of good legislation is that "one size doesn't fit all."
With a number of special district commissioners from all over Nassau County in the audience, Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman when he rose to speak noted, "I didn't do too well on the applause meter, but I'm still the tallest guy in the room." Mr. Weitzman, a critic of special districts, has called for the elimination of compensation and benefits for commissioners, noting that school boards and library boards, by law, do not receive compensation and most village officials do not receive pay and that "there are still capable people able, ready and willing to serve." Only in Nassau County do special district commissioners receive pay, he noted.
He was emphatic in saying, "Nassau County does not want your park district; we are divesting ourselves of parks." He commented that making the petitioning process more straightforward that in turn triggers a referendum on consolidation or dissolution of villages or districts actually strengthens the democratic process.
Mr. Weitzman defended the bill that would eliminate garbage districts saying that the savings, between $14 million and $20 million, are "compelling." The area in Nassau County that would be most impacted by this proposed change would be the Town of Hempstead where the garbage pickup is done by employees rather than being contracted out to large carters.
He also stated that the argument that liability coverage for commissioners would be eliminated in the proposed bill was not valid. "Indemnification in section 18 of the Public Authority law covers liability insurance...no one would serve without it."
Mr. Weitzman concluded by acknowledging the $130 million loss in sales tax revenues for Nassau County and urging everyone to "go shopping."
And then it was the public's chance to vent.
President of the Great Neck Village Officials Association Leonard Samansky summed up the sentiment of some by saying, "Nassau County's in a mess...keep your hands out of our cash register."
The ever-colorful Elizabeth Allen called residents in favor of local government, "latter-day colonists" and those in favor of sweeping changes, "the Royalists." She made the point that local governmental bodies are more responsive to the people...and was just shy of calling for a Tea Party in Manhasset Bay.
Three activists from Suffolk County made the trip to Great Neck to plead the case of Gordon Heights where the local fire district has been roundly criticized for being very expensive and the process to bring dissolution to a vote has been extremely difficult. One said, "If your special districts are working well, you have nothing to fear...but I have a home that no one would buy (because of high taxes)... we have gotten signatures on a petition to call for a referendum...and then had to get them all notarized...and after that were told that each signature also required a witness. We need the process to be fairer."
Paul Bloom pointed out, "It seems that there's a siege mentality here...I'm not prepared to give up my local services. If there is duplication of services...let's get rid of it. If there is waste, if there are inequities, let's get rid of them. Let's make ourselves stronger."
A number of special district commissioners spoke to defend their work. Andrew DeMartin, a commissioner of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire and Water District, criticized lawmakers for passing laws without understanding the unintended consequences of their actions. He said, "We run a huge, complicated district and each resident pays me $1.70 for my hard work...Leave small government alone. It's not broken."
Another commissioner from the Bethpage Water District pointed out that while commissioners are allowed to receive insurance benefits, many of them do not. He said, "We don't have deficits...and yet you begrudge me my compensation."
In the sometimes-heated exchanges of the evening, some points in the local government debate were made; others were not.
One of the strongest arguments for special districts that handle essential services is that money from taxation and/or fees is dedicated toward that service and cannot be siphoned off to a general fund. Managers of special districts are proud of their re-investment into the infrastructure of their systems, whether they oversee drinking water, wastewater, fire protection, ambulance, or parks.
One of the arguments against compensation for special district commissioners is that with per diem pay, there is a tendency for those boards to micro-manage the running of an entity.
There should have been an empty chair for New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who has called New York's system of local government "broken." He writes on his website, "It has been outpaced by globalization, regionalization and an ever changing marketplace...There are 10,521 overlapping government units, providing duplicative services creating needless, wasteful bureaucracies." A number of people referred to the AG's comments as inaccurate. Mr. Lincoln said, "It is local government that is solvent. We are not overlapping, nor are we duplicating services. In addition, we find ways to share some resources through joint purchasing and mutual aid."
It is no secret that there has been a mounting hostility toward Nassau County and privately, some commissioners of special districts have expressed anger that Mr. Weitzman's criticism of them is "hypocritical" since he once served on the Board of Assessors with pay and benefits. The Record asked Mr. Weitzman about this matter after the meeting. The comptroller said, "I served on that board from 1995 to '97. At the time, I recommended that the pay and benefits be eliminated. When the Democrats were voted into the county, they eliminated the compensation for that board...My experience in various positions of government has given me a firsthand view of waste which I think is very beneficial to my role today."