Friday, 06 November 2009 00:00
On Oct. 28, before a crowded room at the William P. Bennett Community Center in Hicksville, the Long Island Special Districts Association (LISDA) hosted a public forum on the facts on consolidation and dissolution of special districts. Karl M. Schweitzer, president of LISDA and chairman of the Hicksville Water District, spoke residents, public officials and local political candidates about the recently passed New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act.
This discussion included the communities of Bethpage, Plainview, Jericho, Westbury and Garden City and the presentation and discussion covered the facts on consolidation and dissolution as it pertains to the local fire and water districts in the communities represented at the meeting.
“During the debate in the state Senate most representatives who spoke supported the bill, but openly admitted that it had flaws and that they would be open to and encouraged amendments before the actual legislation takes effect in March 2010,” said Schweitzer. “LISDA and those I represent have always supported the need of our residents and if it is a streamlined and uniformed consolidation process, then we stand behind that. However, it should not be driven by political debate on what some special interest group thinks would be best, but input from those affected residents.”
The presentation included a review of the following three mechanisms to consolidate or dissolve a Special Improvement District: 1) initiated by local governments, special districts; 2) initiated by petition of the registered voters within special districts; and/or 3) initiated by a county.
This legislation allows a small number of people to potentially cause tremendous change in a community so LISDA will propose Chapter Amendments that: 1) revise the 10 percent threshold number to gather petition signatures to a more reasonable representation of 25 percent of registered voters. LISDA believes that a low voter turnout does not represent the majority of the people and a higher number would adequately support the position of consolidation or dissolution; 2) define the period on how long petitions can be gathered in lieu of being open-ended with no time limit. It is the feeling of LISDA that time limit should be mandated as it is for all other forms of petitioning local governments as such when seeking election to an public office; 3) LISDA is asking that there is a requirement that allows the public a vote on all final plans, just as there must still be a majority within any village or town that may be affected, the same should apply to special districts; and 4) people from outside a community can gather signatures on petitions and LISDA feels that since this is a local issue affecting a community, then there should be a prohibition on allowing petition circulators from outside of a district being considered for consolidation. LISDA feels that only residents should be allowed to gather signatures for a referendum to consolidate or dissolve a village or a district.
The last chapter amendment is the affects the most critical: when a dissolution or consolidation is initiated by a county there is will be no countywide referendum unless it is first voted on by the people with vested interest within their community. As of now, anyone within the county can determine the fate for a community. LISDA wants to ensure that any plan brought forward by the county is voted and approved by the entire legislature after a local vote by the affected communities is conducted.
The presentation then shifted to what the actual cost would be if there were a paid fire service and a consolidated water authority. LISDA provided information from an independent study commissioned by the New York State Firemen’s Association that shows taxes would increase by over 20 percent in Nassau County by switching to a paid service. LISDA officials pointed out that a “consolidated” system would not look much different than the one we have today. There would still be just as many wells, similar needs and identical challenges. Water districts have a rich history of excellent local service from men and women who live in the communities they serve. Consolidation would not lower cost; at best it would only equalize cost. But the point was also made that water remains the most cost-effective service, 10 percent less than the national average. At best, the elimination of paid commissioners would save the residents on average $4.50 per year, but even under a consolidated water service such as an authority, would still have paid members appointed by a state or county representative and there would be no community-minded residents overseeing the best interests of those districts served.
The discussion at the public forum then moved to a review of the “real” tax impact of special districts and several real property tax bills were presented various communities that all showed on average that 65 percent of the taxes paid are for schools, 16 percent toward Nassau County, 12 percent to the local towns and less than 5 percent toward fire protection and clean potable water.
The final discussion was centered around how Nassau County has already spent over $1 million in taxpayer funding and grants to study the consolidation issue and has not issued a final report, even though it began its study over two years ago.
“The local media have investigated special districts and not provided an opportunity for equal coverage except for a few slated quotes,” said Schweitzer, adding that “special districts have taken on many initiatives to improve their image that includes increasing voter turnout by moving to a single voting day to encourage turnout and increased polling locations and hours. We have increased our budget transparency with public hearings and we continue to be monitored by the towns and post our notices on both the town and district websites to make it more interactive”.
Following the 45-minute presentation, there was a question and answer period.
For additional information, visit www.LISDA.net.