Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman released a study in December 2007 on cost disparities of special taxing districts. The study showed that residents paid different amounts for services depending on what district they live in. It's as random as spinning a wheel, the comptroller concluded.
Are property taxes getting your savings down?
With the problem of escalating property taxes further aggravated by a recession, some community members are seeking ways to provide relief to taxpayers. One organization, Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD), believes that there is the potential for taxpayer savings in special districts - in the consolidation or perhaps elimination of some special districts that aren't operating efficiently.
With special districts providing different services to town residents, some wonder if there is a more cost-effective and efficient way of delivering services to the taxpayers.
According to a report entitled "Nassau County Special Districts: The Case for Reform," issued by Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman in 2005, homeowners served by Sanitation District #6, which includes West Hempstead, Franklin Square and Elmont, paid an average tax of $548 in 2003, which jumped to $598 in 2004.
Another report issued by Weitzman in 2007, entitled "Cost Disparities in Special Districts in Nassau County, cites $699 as the average amount residents in Sanitation District #6 paid in 2006.
Weitzman's 2007 report also made the point that town-run districts can provide sanitation service in a more cost-effective way than commissioner-run districts such as Sanitation District #6. According to the report, while the average resident of Sanitation District #6 paid $699 in taxes in 2006, residents that fall within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead Sanitation Department and not one of the five special sanitation districts, paid an average of $447 in taxes for sanitation services.
"Hundreds of thousands of Nassau County residents pay far too much for sanitation, water and fire service. It's almost as if, depending on where you live, that you are spinning a Wheel of Fortune to see what you pay. Unfortunately, no one is aware of these costs when they move into their home," said Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman said in December 2007.
RESD also found disparities when comparing the tax rates for sanitary and garbage districts for 2009. Residents of Sanitation District #6 will pay a tax rate of 46.575 per $100 of assessed valuation while residents within the Town of Hempstead Sanitation Department will have a tax rate of 26.723 per $100 of assessed valuation.
Laura Mallay, executive director of RESD, said the goal of the organization is to seek out the most cost-effective and efficient forms of government services and raise awareness among residents about special districts that could be operating more efficiently. "It's not that people don't care. It's that people don't know," she said.
Mallay became interested in special districts in 2005 when then-county assessor Harvey Levinson held a town hall meeting to discuss special district taxes. Mallay turned her attention to Sanitation District #2, which serves the area she lived in, and ran unsuccessfully for commissioner. "It was anything but a smooth ride. I was campaigned against by the commissioners as well as the workforce. Tax dollars were used to pay for the printing and delivery of fliers denouncing me and my ideas. Workers were told by supervisors that should I win, they would all lose their jobs," said Mallay when she testified before the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness on July 25, 2007.
Now, nearly four years after Mallay ran for sanitation commissioner, she, along with other members of RESD and allies, are hoping to raise awareness of special districts and whether residents can save money by services being offered more efficiently.
RESD board member and former Stewart Manor Mayor Joseph Troiano believes that residents will benefit with the knowledge of special districts and can, therefore, decide themselves whether the special districts that served them are operating efficiently and not wasting tax dollars.
Members of RESD are pushing for an initiative proposed by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to give residents the power to consolidate or dissolve all government entities including special taxing districts by forcing a referendum with a petition of at least 10 percent of registered voters within that taxing district.
The New York State governor's budget proposal included language to encourage local government consolidation in Bill A.156, which eliminates compensation for town special district commissioners and relates to the process for municipal consolidation or dissolution.
However, there are some who fear that such a law would grant citizens the power to dissolve those districts or municipalities such as villages that are operating efficiently.
"I am extremely hopeful that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and my colleagues have joined me in my quest to strike section NN of Budget Bill A.156 concerning recommendations made by the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. 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 positions, and transferring the management of sanitary districts to town boards," said Michelle Schimel, Assemblywoman in the 16th Assembly District, which includes part of the Town of North Hempstead.
However, in parts of the Town of Hempstead, some residents are concerned what too many layers of taxing authorities will do to their ability to pay for property taxes.
Mallay and Troiano argue that if municipalities and some special taxing districts are operating efficiently, then residents will not vote via referendum to eliminate them, and those that are wasteful and are causing taxpayers to overpay for services, should be eliminated.
"We finally have an opportunity in this challenging economic environment to streamline the multiple and unnecessary layers of government that exist in Nassau County, and give our residents and small businesses the modern, efficient, and cost-effective government that they deserve," wrote Troiano is an Op-Ed piece.
RESD also is striving to encourage competitive elections for open commissioner seats and promote a single election day for all special taxing districts to be supervised by the Nassau County Board of Elections.