Opinion

After attending the recent meeting in Great Neck with Senator Johnson, Assemblywoman Schimel and County Comptroller Weitzman, it is time to set the record straight, or at least straighter.

I was particularly disappointed by Mr. Weitzman's back tracking on special districts. I have seen his pitch on many occasions, and in front of a largely unfriendly audience, the pitch changed, and changed quite dramatically. At the Great Neck meeting, Mr. Weitzman stated that he is not in favor of district consolidation - with the exception of garbage districts. In earlier presentations, the pitch went something like this - If we had to do it all over again, we would never structure local government the way it is now and the example held out is Maryland, which has a strong county government, with no subdivisions within the county. I could be mistaken, but that sure sounds like consolidation of everything, not just garbage districts. Great Neck residents, I'm sure, were relieved by his comments, but I am quite sure their relief will be short-lived if the Governor and Mr. Wietzman get their way.

At this meeting, Comptroller Weitzman relied on a county study entitled "Consolidation Analysis and Implementation Plan: Solid Waste." One of the key efficiency measures used in the report is a calculation of 'cost per household' for garbage service, which assumes that garbage districts collect virtually no commercial waste. This is simply incorrect. In the case of Port Washington approximately 20 percent of the total tonnage that we pay to dispose is from commercial routes. The use of this measurement can easily distort reality in several ways.

If an area has a substantial portion of large commercial establishments, residents get a windfall as private haulers service these large establishments. As an example, in the Port Washington Garbage District, a house with the same assessed value will pay about 30 percent more than in Manhasset (a town operated district). Both districts contract with the same private carter for service. In Manhasset, the non-contract costs of the district are about 7 percent of the total. In Port Washington, this total is only about 2 percent. It would appear that Port Washington is more efficient, so why is Manhasset so much cheaper? It's called the "Miracle Mile." Lots of assessed valuation, paying a high tax rate, with no demand for service. Port Washington may be more efficient, but we have no Miracle Mile. On the other hand, there is no break if a district generally has smaller commercial establishments that are serviced by the district.

As an additional complexity, commercial establishments pay a much higher tax rate per dollar of assessed value than residential property. The more logical choice to measure performance is cost per ton - total costs divided by the total number of tons processed. By the county report's own assessment, final per-ton disposal costs, whether in-state or out-of-state, are very consistent across the county, so this should provide a reasonable measure of local efficiency. Presumably, the reason this measure isn't used is that it does not provide the desired answer.

How garbage districts operate will also have a material impact on efficiency. In North Hempstead, most districts have been 'privatized.' That is, the municipalities contract with private companies to collect garbage within their boundaries. By contrast, in Hempstead, most districts are municipally operated. That is, the municipality owns and operates their own vehicles and municipal employees do the work.

According to the county report, in Hempstead, the town and special districts cost per employee ranges from $92,000 to $117,000. The report also estimates the cost of privatized labor in a range of $50,000 to $80,000 per employee. Simply put, privatized services are materially less expensive. While the goal of cost efficiency is reasonable, how does consolidation help this situation? What politician is going to call for the elimination of municipal employees in order to privatize?

The county report also discusses the potential for recycling savings, drawing the conclusion that increased recycling can save money. No argument there, but how does consolidation of districts improve recycling rates?

The report also discusses the concept of a "RecycleBank," claiming, "Residents can receive up to $35 per month in coupons back based on their level of participation." My garbage tax is less than $35 per month. In theory, if I recycle a lot, I can get paid more than I currently pay in garbage taxes! Sorry, this is a pipe dream.

I am not defending wasteful districts. Where there is evidence of wasteful practices, those practices need to be addressed, and the voters should have the power to address them. Unfortunately, an onerous referendum process often thwarts public action. One legislative proposal that deserves our support is the relaxing of the referendum process that will transfer power to the voters. If districts are to be consolidated, it should be a local vote that makes the decision, not a vote of legislators that mostly do not represent our districts. In Port Washington, we have the benefit of some of the best special districts in New York. We should not allow the state legislature to penalize the taxpayers here by consolidating districts.

Douglas Augenthaler,

Commissioner

Port Washington Garbage District


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