Advocates Petition for Vote on Garbage Taxes

By: Spencer Rumsey

A fraying flag hung forlornly on a pole outside the Grand Avenue offices of Sanitary District 2 in Baldwin Tuesday afternoon, as a small group of organizers and area residents assembled on the sidewalk near the entrance to announce that they were “halfway there” in their petition drive that would put the future of this special taxing district on a referendum. It would mark the first time on Long Island that the “Cuomo Law,” or more formally known as the Citizen Empowerment Act, would be put to the test.

Gov.  Andrew Cuomo helped draft this law when he was New York State attorney general and it was enacted last year. Under its provisions, New Yorkers can vote to dissolve special districts, which are the taxing entities that provide services such as water, fire protection and sanitation—and are seen by some as the “invisible government” contributing to high taxation.

In Baldwin members of Residents for Efficient Special Districts and the Long Island Progressive Coalition announced that they have collected more than 2,500 signatures of residents in the Sanitary 2 district; their goal is 5,000.

“It’s not about the service,” said Laura Mallay, RESD executive director, who first got involved in this issue in 2002 when she discovered that because she lived in South Hempstead she was paying about $543 in garbage taxes that would only cost her $263 if she’d lived in nearby Merrick. “It’s about the price and fairness.”

Once the petitioners get the required number of signatures—either 10 percent of the registered voters in the particular district or 5,000 residents, whichever number is smaller—the issue can go on the ballot and must be voted on within 90 to 120 days. And if they approve the district being dissolved, then the residents could see a significant reduction in their tax bill as these services would be picked up by the towns, rather than by a special district.

If Sanitary District 2 were eliminated, local residents would pay the same rate as those already served by the Town of Hempstead—half what they pay now to have their garbage picked up.

Leroy Roberts, one of the Sanitary District 2 commissioners, watched the press conference from the sidewalk but declined to comment, although the district’s opposition to being dissolved is well known. Their defense is that a lack of a viable commercial base in the district causes assessments to be low, necessitating higher taxes.

With rain clouds closing in, two local residents added their names to the petition: Natalie Singleton and Van White, who are neighbors in Woodland Estates, a community of townhouses in North Baldwin.

“I just want fair and equal service,” Singleton said, adding that she wasn’t aware of the Cuomo law until she was contacted by organizers from RESD and LIPC. “This is information I did not have. How would we know?”

“We’re here today because people of Long Island are paying too much money for their services,” said Serena Liguouri, LIPC’s coordinator of the Government Efficiency Project.

“By consolidating sanitation pickup into the Town of Hempstead, citizens will save tax dollars and maintain excellent services,” added Mallay.

The petition drive, which started this summer, has no deadline, organizers said, only the obstacles of bad weather, ignorance and fear. Certainly the special district commissioners would stand to lose their salaries, benefits and pensions, if the district is dissolved.

One organizer said that some residents have expressed concern that if they signed the petition, their garbage wouldn’t be picked up in retaliation. But so far, that service disruption hasn’t happened.

“We’re getting great feedback from the taxpayers,” said Liguori. “We don’t want to vilify the workers. We don’t want to get workers fired.”