Working Families Party Cleared

But has the cloud of suspicion passed now that investigation dropped?

By Spencer Rumsey on Aug 24th, 2010

 Now that the Working Families Party no longer has to worry about being indicted, it can concentrate on a more serious problem: its survival.

 The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York was probing the third party’s 2009 campaign in the city, looking at whether its for-profit wing, Data & Field Services, Inc., had helped its own candidates with illegal funding. At the state Democratic Convention back in May, some Democratic Party insiders were almost gleeful as they told the Press that the left-leaning WFP would be charged “any day.”

They were mistaken. Last week, the WFP learned the investigation has been dropped, and it was finally in the clear.

“This lets us refocus our energies a bit,” says Dan Levitan, a WFP spokesman.

But the WFP still doesn’t have what it was hoping for: Andrew Cuomo on top of its ticket. Instead, Legal Aid lawyer Kenneth Schaeffer has the task of drawing the 50,000 votes necessary to retain the third party’s line. So, the WFP may have just dodged a bullet, but if it can’t stay on the ballot after November, it won’t matter.

“We’re very comfortable with the candidate we’ve got,” says Levitan, “and if a better one comes along, we’ll be happy with that, too. But we’re very confident we’ll get the votes we need to keep fighting.” He did not think the U.S. Attorney’s investigation had been politically motivated.

Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a local affiliate of the Working Families Party, says that Cuomo “should be proud to take our line. It’s an excellent party. It’s about the middle class and the lower-income person in our state.”

But Cuomo has been running to the right as he positions himself for the fall with a fiscally conservative platform. Although he did get the AFL-CIO’s endorsement at its convention earlier this month, which had been in doubt, he did not get the blessings of the New York State United Teachers.

As NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi, who used to teach fourth-graders in Central Islip, explained recently to the Albany Times-Union, “When we look at his positions now − especially on issues such as tax caps, constitutional convention and the size of the public work force − we have serious issues.”

 They aren’t the only ones.

Long Island’s Special Taxing Districts

How outraged citizens are dumping the status quo

By Spencer Rumsey on Aug 19th, 2010

Two long Island women. One from Suffolk, the other from Nassau. One a Republican, the other a Democrat. Rosalie Hanson of Gordon Heights and Laura Mallay of South Hempstead didn’t know each other when they first found the cause that would change their lives, but it was this cause—fighting special districts—that eventually brought them together. 

Special districts are the lesser-known taxing entities that provide services such as water, fire protection and sanitation, for example, layered within the network of county, town and village municipalities. Nassau has more than 200 of them. As the Long Island Index, a nonprofit study funded each year by The Rauch Foundation, has pointed out, “Having so many separate taxing districts contributes to the high cost of living on Long Island.” With their own tax lines, these entities often operate like mini-fiefdoms hidden in the shadows.

As these women would discover, uncovering them is not easy; removing them is even harder. It’s a battle being waged throughout New York State, thanks to the recently enacted, attorney general-penned Citizen Empowerment Act, which enables residents fed up with exorbitant fees to simply dissolve the entities altogether. But even with this weapon, eliminating these costly entities is easier said than done, as the two unsuspecting friends would also soon find. 

Hanson’s Suffolk community has the distinction of paying the highest fire district taxes on Long Island. Carved out of Coram, Middle Island, Yaphank and Medford, Gordon Heights has four zip codes for its 1.7 square miles but one fire district with an average household tax charge of $1,500, quadruple the amount of nearby areas. Back in 2006, a couple of Hanson’s friends went to a conference on Nassau County’s special tax districts held at Hofstra University, where they heard Laura Mallay speak about paying twice what her Nassau neighbors pay for garbage service.

 The conference was the brain child of then-Nassau Comptroller Howard Weitzman, whose office the year before had audited five sanitary districts in three towns.

“Everyone needs garbage collected, clean drinking water and fire protection,” Weitzman said at the time. “But Nassau residents can pay two or three times as much for the same service depending on the district in which they live. Our audits unveiled millions of dollars of waste by some special districts, and a general lack of accountability, transparency and oversight.”

Speaking to the Press while vacationing recently in the Canadian Rockies after overcoming a serious illness that hindered his re-election campaign last year, Weitzman summarized his studies: “We found that the taxpayers in the garbage districts in the Town of Hempstead could save approximately $20 million if their garbage costs were reduced to the garbage costs of the town,” he says.

Taking on special districts was far from Laura Mallay’s mind eight years ago when she was talking to a friend on the phone and looked out her kitchen window as a man leaped into her backyard and tried to steal one of her kids’ bicycles. “I was fit to be tied,” recalls the mother of five (she had only three children back then). She hung up and confronted the man. “He tells me, ‘These people are chasing me!’” She told him that the police would help him, and she called 911. It turned out the people chasing him were the police. The man had just invaded a nearby home and was on the run. “The guy had a gun! Who knew?” But it’s that kind of indomitable spirit that typifies Mallay even today. 

Trial By Fire
Those heroics impressed Mallay’s husband James, an electrician, and garnered support from her neighbors, who encouraged her to rekindle her block’s dormant civic association. Naturally, their biggest issue was their property taxes. And that interest led them to then-Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson, who had begun looking closely at the county’s taxing districts, particularly the South Hempstead Fire District and the Town of Hempstead Sanitary District No. 2, which he found charged more than similar districts. In the case of fire taxes, Levinson told the Press recently from his home in Florida, Mallay’s community was paying a tax rate of $46 while Manhasset was paying only $9.

“It’s $543 for garbage tax in Laura Mallay’s area,” Levinson says, “and if she lived in Merrick, she’d be paying $263.”

Mallay invited Levinson to talk about special tax districts at a town hall meeting in March 2005 at the elementary school with her group and two other civic associations from Baldwin Oaks and Birchwood, all three in the same sanitation and fire districts.

“The auditorium was packed to the brim,” Levinson recalls. “And what was parked outside? A big fire truck! And they had brought in firemen from Albany in full-dress uniform to picket me! That meeting got to be very, very tense because they were convinced I was trying to close the fire district.”

“They’re all in their gear, they’re all standing firm, and they’re not letting him speak,” Mallay says. “They’re yelling. It was crazy.”

For Mallay, it was a rude awakening. Although her father was active in the Nassau County Democratic Committee, she’d never realized how political fire departments can be. At the urging of the other civic association members, she decided to run for commissioner of her sanitation district.

“These mini-governments across Long Island are what is leading to these incredible taxes that we all pay,” Mallay tells the Press. “People have different feelings about fire, schools and water. But if you can’t fix garbage, you can’t fix any of it!”

The trash collectors see it differently.

“The vast majority of [the disparity in household fees] is the level of service and the assessment,” says Bob Noble, the secretary to the board of commissioners at Sanitary District No. 2, where he began working 31 years ago on the back of a garbage truck. “This special district has the lowest assessment. We have a very small commercial base in Baldwin and it’s non-existent in South Hempstead.”

Levison disagrees.

“The Sanitary District No. 2 in Baldwin is what I call an invisible government,” says Levinson, adding that most residents don’t even know that it imposes a different tax rate from the town’s. “The way to relieve some of the tax burden,” he says, “is to have the district dissolve itself. As long as that sanitary district is around, it has to have a tax rate.” He said most of the sanitation workers would keep their jobs with the town because “garbage is a growth industry.”

Bob Noble is the sanitary district’s secretary to the Board of Commissioners and a volunteer Baldwin fireman.

So Laura Mallay threw her hat in the ring, so to speak, and challenged Gerard Brown for sanitary commissioner in 2005.

“They came after me hard,” she recalls, shaking her head and sighing. “They were terrible to my children. Certain kids weren’t allowed to play with my kids anymore!” As she remembers the friends who stopped talking to her, a steely resolve seals her hazel eyes

“You know, they did me a favor. If somebody is going to turn their back on you over a difference in beliefs, then they’re not really somebody you want in your life anymore or around your children, right?”

She lost big, but her struggle brought her an invitation to speak at Weitzman’s conference at Hofstra, where she met friends of Rosalie Hanson, who had been confronting Gordon Heights’ onerous fire district taxes for almost two decades.

Up In Smoke
When Rosalie Hanson moved about a mile and a half up the road from Coram in 1986 and bought a new three-bedroom ranch in Gordon Heights with her husband Alex, she was shocked to find out that she’d be paying $1,000 more for fire service than her sister, who had just bought a house in the same Medford zip code. A year later the Hansons got the state comptroller to audit the district, originally set up in 1952, and learned “there’s nothing you can do about it,” she recalls.

“As the community grows, the tax rate would go down, we were told,” says Hanson, a registered Republican. “Even though we added more homes, our taxes still went up.”

And so they fumed until 2006, when their district’s plight landed on the Sunday cover of Long Island’s daily newspaper.

“My husband came home with the paper, and I shouted, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Gordon Heights!’” Hanson recalls. “I reached out to some neighbors and we were off and running.”

An April protest demanding special district audits gathers outside Nassau Comptroller George Maragos’ office in Mineola.

They formed a group and educated themselves. They learned about a Brookhaven Town law that would let them dissolve their special tax district if they collected enough signatures on a petition to put the referendum to a vote. The catch, she says, was that “those who signed the petition had to represent 50 percent of the assessed value of the area.” It was daunting, but since her district had about 900 homes, Hanson’s group thought they could pull it off.

“It took six solid months,” Hanson says. “Some people would not sign out of fear. They thought some other emergency services would blacklist them, so I had to work twice as hard for those people who live in fear, you know?”

Her group turned in the petitions in August 2006, only to learn in October it was denied on a formal technicality. But that rejection only spurred them on. The following year, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer set up a Commission on Local Government Efficiency “to devise a plan to consolidate some of the 4,200 independent taxing districts statewide and to make the remaining districts more cost-efficient,” his press release said. The commission held a public forum at Hofstra University where Laura Mallay, who by that time had formed a nonprofit group called Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD), invited Rosalie Hanson to speak. And so the connection was forged.

Huntington-based attorney Paul Sabatino II, who’s worked in Suffolk County government for many years and is now in private practice, got involved in Rosalie Hanson’s struggle in 2008 after the Town of Brookhaven had rejected her group’s petitions. Sabatino still remembers the shock he felt when he first saw the residents’ tax bills.

“Nobody in the State of New York should be paying what those people are paying,” Sabatino says. “You look at that and you say there’s got to be a remedy.”

In rejecting the group’s petitions the town had cited New York State election law, “which has nothing to do with it,” Sabatino says. “I think the reason beneath the surface was that it was a hot potato, and they didn’t want to confront the issue head-on.”

State Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point), a former Brookhaven Town supervisor, explains the town’s quandary: “You have some neighbors pitted against others,” he says. “The fire department has been the focal point of that community…for decades. The town is trying to be as prudent as they can on this one.”

A picture from inside Rosalie Hanson’s living room, where the battle against special districts is being waged.

In a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve in 2008, Hanson’s group delivered their new petitions to town hall, still having to ensure that the signers represented at least 50 percent of the district’s assessed valuation.

“It was reviewed forever,” Sabatino says of the town’s process. For months the group heard nothing. Then one morning last October Sabatino says he got “a frantic call” that one of the town’s attorneys was reportedly telling people at a public meeting in Gordon Heights “how you can take your name off the petition,” he recalls. “So much time was going by, and then to hear that they were actually giving advice on how people could take their names off the petition! I went ballistic.”

Later that month a reporter from the North Shore Sun, which had named Hanson its “person of the year,” asked her reaction to the story he was working on: the Town of Brookhaven had accepted her group’s petition. Apparently, she was not the first to know.

“They sent me a certified letter of rejection in 2006, so why wouldn’t they send me a certified letter in 2009?” Hanson asks, incredulity rising in her voice.

Subsequently, the town hired Emergency Service Consultants International, a consulting firm headquartered in Oregon with an office in North Carolina, to conduct a $91,000 feasibility study of consolidating Gordon Heights. The study finally began this June, and the final report was supposed to be done by October. But Phil Kouwe, the project manager, told the Press his firm is still waiting for data from the county and the state, particularly regarding Gordon Heights’ emergency response time and the volume of calls, so the study can be completed. He blames “the wheels of government” for the delay. 

“I’m not freaking out by how long it’s taking,” he adds.

Nor is Rosalie Hanson, who remains eternally upbeat.

“For the past five years it’s been total dedication,” she says. “It’s time, energy and money out of my own pocket but I feel it’s worth it in the long run. It will give the people in this community a better quality of life because they’ll have more money in their wallets to spend on their families.”

Sabatino has nothing but admiration for the perseverance of Hanson’s group.

“If the average citizen knew what they went through, they’d be held up as heroes!” says Sabatino. “Every obstacle was put in their way.”

The Gordon Heights fire district is still charging its high tax rates, but Hanson’s struggle to reverse course has already produced one stunning success in the realm of real government reform: the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, which became effective March 21. The attorney general’s office reportedly followed up recommendations from Spitzer’s 2007 commission, which had heard Hanson recount her efforts.

“I was told by his office that our plight was the inspiration for him to change the law,” Hanson tells the Press.

“I have to give [Andrew] Cuomo a lot of credit,” Sabatino says, “because he not only saw the issue but rather than grandstanding on it and just having a press release or two like a guy like [Steve] Levy does, he actually followed through and pursued it to its end, and he fought off all the attempts to amend it. And the Gordon Heights story is so egregious it became the catalyst for the reform legislation.”

Pros And Cons
The Citizen Empowerment Act, shorthand for the new legislation, provides three routes to consolidation or dissolution: the county executive and the county legislature can submit a master plan to a county-wide referendum; the taxing district’s own board could initiate the process (as some small villages upstate have done) and put up its plan to a referendum; or the residents within the district could launch a petition drive to get a referendum on the ballot, provided they obtained 10 percent of the district’s voters or 5,000 voters (whichever number is smaller) to sign the petition.

“When a majority of electors vote yes to consolidate,” explains Andrew Calderaro, project director of the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project, set up by the nonprofit Long Island Progressive Coalition to work with grassroots’ groups like RESD to implement the law, “the governing body must meet within 30 days of the certification of the vote and create a plan within 180 days of the certification. This plan is subject to public hearings, must appear in newspapers of general circulation, and must appear on the governing body’s website.”

To repudiate that plan, citizens would have to launch another petition drive but gather more signatures than were required before: 25 percent or 15,000 of the registered voters. If voters reject the referendum the first time it comes up for a vote, there’s a four-year moratorium on any new attempts to dissolve or consolidate the particular district.

In the first week of June 2009, the bill passed overwhelmingly thanks to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who extinguished a push to eliminate fire districts from the law.

But the pushback began immediately. State Sens. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) and Foley, plus Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) have proposed a bill that would exclude fire districts as well as protect towns and villages by raising the required number of petition signatures, prolonging the time-table for government action and mandating that a study of the possible financial impact of the change be made available to the voters as part of the initial process, rather than after the referendum.

“I view the Cuomo legislation as really a threat to the way of life for the residents who live in my district and really for the residents who live throughout Long Island,” says Johnson, whose district includes 33 villages and several special taxing districts. “It’s poorly drafted, it’s poorly constructed, and it won’t really provide any tangible savings.”

Firefighters and mayors want the chapter amendments but for different reasons. Ostensibly the fire districts say that doing away with volunteers would require replacing them with full-time paid fire fighters, which would raise the costs to the taxpayers who dissolved their district, as well as adding to the emergency response time.

“If in the process I might disenfranchise 55 or 65 volunteers, and I have to pay to replace them,” says Kirby Hannan, a lobbyist for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which represents the volunteer fire districts, “then I didn’t save any money. As a taxpayer I want to be able to make an informed decision. And we don’t think the bill does that right now.”

“I am all for empowering the people but it’s got to be informed consent,” says Schimel. 

Village officials say they’re worried that voters might support a referendum without knowing how much it might truly cost to get rid of their municipality.

“The law is intended to empower the voters,” says Barbara Van Epps, deputy director of the New York Conference of Mayors. “But we would argue that it’s tough to empower them without educating them at the same time,” she says. “So our fundamental concern is the fact that the vote takes place before the study. And we have some real concerns about that.”

The mayors also worry that a bunch of disgruntled citizens emboldened by the low threshold of petition signatures could subject the villages to a constant barrage of harassment. As an aide to one of the amendment’s sponsors said, “Have you ever gone to a town board meeting? Do you know how many crazy people show up? Let’s be honest.”

The aide understood the rationale for the law, but still found fault with it. “If it’s going to be more democratic, fine, but it also took some power away from the local entities themselves.”

Doing that seems to be Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s intention, echoing the time-honored sentiment of Oliver Cromwell, who told the Rump Parliament in 1653, “Be gone, rogues, you have sat long enough!”

In his campaign for governor, Cuomo has a compelling riff on the suffocating layers of the Empire State’s taxing bureaucracies. Take this spiel from his acceptance speech at the state’s Democratic Convention in Rye: “There are 10,000 local governments in the State of New York. Ten thousand! Town, village, lighting district, water district, sewer district, a special district to count the other districts in case you missed a district!”

Given the staggering problems facing our state (another multi-billion dollar budget deficit on tap for next year), it’s unlikely the amendments to Cuomo’s law will rank high on the legislative agenda. But if they do come up for a vote, they might pass, considering that even the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Lisa Tyson wouldn’t mind.

“We have no problem with fire departments and villages being left out of the law,” she tells the Press. “Those are not the special taxing districts we’re talking about. It’s the garbage, the sewer, the water. Those are the ones with the real abuses.”

Her group intends to launch a petition drive to dissolve either Sanitary No. 2 or Sanitary No. 6 later this month, once the local grassroots’ group is ready to hit the street.

Tyson agrees with Schimel’s desire to prolong the study process, finding the 180-day time frame “ridiculous.”
“Governments can’t tie their shoes in that amount of time!” she says. “If they create a crappy plan, then what’s the point? We don’t want to make things worse!”

But she does have one overriding concern, she admits, and it has to do with the ambition of the man himself who helped draft the law.

“Cuomo won’t be in the attorney general’s office next year,” Tyson says. “How much will the attorney general’s office really help if it’s a bad plan? How much will they really get involved?” She says advocates can’t rely on an aggressive comptroller’s office.

“Auditing is great,” she says, “but it doesn’t change policy.”

Some supporters of the Cuomo law like it just the way it is. They say the amendments are intended to water it down for the special interests. 

Sabatino has little patience for those trying to amend Cuomo’s law.

“I’ve tried to understand the arguments that they’ve raised but it’s nothing more than a defense of the status quo,” he says. “I think [Cuomo] did a brilliant job of providing uniformity and simplicity.”

Predictably, Foley took umbrage at that assessment.

“Even the most brilliant laws need improvements!” he counters. “Let me put it this way: I didn’t run for office and spend time away from my family to go to Albany to protect the status quo!”

The People Squeak
One thing that does protect the status quo is citizens’ inertia, and it may work against those who want to put the Cuomo law into action.

“To get people to come out to vote, they have to be angry about something, and very few people are angry about, for example, their garbage collection,” says Weitzman, the former Nassau comptroller. “In fact, we found that most people are very satisfied with their garbage collection—even when we pointed out that they were paying extra money for the same level of collection than other people were paying. It was almost like: ‘Consolidation should take place but not in my backyard!’ But with that kind of attitude we’re never going to be able to do anything about our high tax structure.”

Charles Zettek, vice president and director of government management services for the Center for Government Research in Albany, agrees with Weitzman’s analysis.

“It’s the classic conundrum across the country but it plays itself out brutally in New York State. People complain bitterly about high taxes and yet are not willing to give up the services those taxes are paying for. They want their taxes to be cut by somebody else giving up something but not them.”

Zettek is paying close attention to the efforts to dissolve small villages upstate; two referenda are on the ballot this week, and another is up later this month. Out of a handful of so far, only the one in Seneca Falls passed, 51-49, a “flip of the coin,” Zettek says, adding that research showed that its residents would save about $1,000 a year in taxes. “That’s how powerful the no-change impetus is,” he adds.

“It goes back to Machiavelli: How do you change things?” asks Zettek. “Empowering local citizens is going to make some changes but it’s going to come piecemeal. The fault that citizens don’t take the authority they’ve been given constitutionally and actually act upon it is not the fault of the districts. It’s the fault of the citizens not taking their government seriously.”

Nassau Contracted Health Care Workers Win Full Raise

Written by Elizabeth Lanza Friday, 06 August 2010 00:00

Legislature Hears Employers’ Protest – Dismisses Plea

On July 26, a special session of the Nassau County Legislature was held to vote on the one dollar per hour salary raise promised to home health care workers employed by agencies that have contracts with the county, as per Nassau’s Living Wage Law. After debating a bill to put off the raise, legislators voted to leave the increase intact as scheduled for August.

In 2006, the Living Wage Law was unanimously passed by the Legislature. The law provided for a phased-in salary increase from $9.50 per hour to $12.50. The last one dollar increment had been scheduled to go into effect on Aug. 1, however, there has been much opposition from health care employers, who claim that the increase in cost will be unmanageable for them, and will result in layoffs.

Responding to this plea from the health care employers, NC Legislature Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt introduced a bill to delay the pay increase, allowing the employers to make their case before the Legislature. The bill proposed a raise based on the consumer price index or CPI, which would be about 18 cents as opposed to the mandated one dollar. It also proposed a six-month moratorium on the full Living Wage increase. This extra time was meant to allow the health care industry time to address problems they have been saying they experience at the state level that they say make another increase unbearable. The complaint is that New York State has been cutting what it pays the companies while also adding new taxes and costs to operation.

Presiding Officer Schmitt told Anton Community Newspapers, “I introduced this bill because of the disgraceful way the State of New York has turned its back on Long Island, with MTA cuts, the MTA payroll tax… now these home companies have had their reimbursement rate cut by the state while our cost to them is going up… That is a premise for discussion. They said no one else is listening. So, we let them make their case.”

The current living wage for Nassau contracted employers is $13.10 an hour or $11.50 with health benefits. On Aug. 2, this rate has been scheduled to go up to $14.16 an hour or $12.50 with benefits. Although an increase of only $1 does not seem like a lot to some at the hearings, representatives that testified on behalf of the agencies said that this increase would translate into a major problem.

Bob Callaghan, for instance, a representative of the New York State Association of Health Care Providers, a trade organization advocating for providers, testified that the 35 county approved agencies serve about 3,000 families and employ about 5,000 people. Callaghan and others speaking on behalf of employers, spoke to the idea that with an increase in salaries there would be ramifications and jobs lost.

However, both Democratic and Republican legislatures said that they needed specific details on exactly how many jobs would be lost if they went ahead with the increase. Legislators indicated that the agencies failed to come up with the concrete numbers they were looking for, and this swayed Monday’s vote to keep the raise as scheduled.

“We gave these providers one last opportunity to make their case that hardship would result from an increase. They failed,” Schmitt said after the hearing. “Everyone on the legislature agreed that they didn’t do it. There was no specific example of ‘agency x will turn back this number of county contracts,’ or ‘agency y will lay off this many workers.’ So we rejected the item and the wage goes into effect.”

Legislator Diane Yatauro, who serves as the Democrats’ minority leader, fought hard to make sure that the raise would go into effect, saying, “We are talking about hardworking people who earn approximately $22,000 per year performing tasks that most of us would shy away from. Keeping this one dollar commitment was not going to place anyone in jeopardy. It was simply the right thing to do.”

Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, testified at hearings and spoke out against the bill that would put the raise on hold. Tyson said, “The Nassau County Legislature did the right thing. Workers who do work for the county have been living on poverty wages and desperately deserved the raise. The health care companies should not balance their budgets on the back of workers. We thank the Legislature for doing their research and proving that the increase will not result in layoffs.”

Bob Callaghan expressed frustration on behalf of the health care employers, who he believes did make a sound case. He told Anton Community Newspapers after the hearing, “We are definitely disappointed. I thought we did a fairly decent job presenting our bottom line to the Legislature. We included a graph that showed pro forma that the business model doesn’t work with this increase.”

Callaghan believes the decision came down to politics. “They just didn’t want to hear it,” he said. “I think that between the sensationalism and the vocal union participation, it was a lot easier to just walk on this one.”

He added that the local health care industry should “weather” the pay increase but layoffs could be coming. Smaller agencies will be impacted the most, he said. But, many might qualify for a waiver from the Living Wage requirements.

“We’ll probably see a lot of waiver applications quickly coming in,” said Callaghan. “Agencies are considering other strategies open to them in order to avoid layoffs. I haven’t heard specifically yet of anyone turning in contract or laying folks off at this point. But that could be down the road a little bit.”

Schmitt said after the hearing that as a result of this experience, he will not support future pay mandates, sharing, “I am not passing any more automatic increases unless they are [based on the] cost of living. It is wrong to dictate specific dollar amounts for the future when you don’t know what the future holds.”

Will Nassau County Hit the Brakes on Living Wage?

July 26, 2010

NEW YORK – The battle over the Living Wage Law is expected to heat up again today in Nassau County on Long Island. A special session of country lawmakers has been called to determine whether a one-dollar-an hour pay increase can be put on hold. Nassau County enacted its Living Wage Law in 2007, and the final pay increase is supposed to take effect on August 1. Home health agencies says they can’t afford it right now, with some companies claiming it could lead to layoffs.

Lisa Tyson with the Long Island Progressive Coalition points out, though, that companies have not backed up those claims.

“There have been several hearings, and what is clear is that the industry cannot prove that there’s going to be job losses. The living wage is actually paid for through the contracts, so it’s in there and they don’t want to give it to the workers who really deserve it.”

The current living wage is $11.50 an hour, with benefits. The measure before Nassau County lawmakers would block an increase to $12.50 an hour that is supposed to take effect next week.

Home health care agencies claim they’ve been caught in the middle, and now are having a hard time functioning because of state budget cuts.

Tyson says these companies already caught a break when the pay raise was stretched out over a period of years, and now it is time to pay up.

“I believe that there is a compromise bill to have the pay increase start in February, but that’s just not fair. These people are making poverty wages and they work for the county basically through a contact. It is just incorrect and wrong to do this to people.”

The home health industry employs about 5,000 workers in Nassau County.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service – NY

GROUPS OPPOSE CUTS TO LI BUS

New York— A coalition of civic, transportation, business, labor, planning and environmental groups joined together to oppose MTA cuts to Long Island Bus.

In particular, the groups called the MTA’s proposal to eliminate its funding contribution entirely to Nassau County’s LI Bus system a misguided attempt to balance its budget and a system killer.  If enacted, thousands of bus riders would be left with no alternative to get to work and school, possibly forcing riders to pay for expensive taxis or lose their jobs. 

“The MTA’s proposed cuts will obliterate the LI Bus system as we know it,” said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.  “These cuts could very well mean that Nassau County will not have a viable bus transit system as soon as the next few years.”

“But the MTA is not the only entity at fault,” continued Slevin. “Nassau County and the State are not living up to their obligation to fund Long Island Bus and ensure riders have affordable and reliable transit service.”

She noted that Nassau County is contributing half as much as it was in 2000. Both the County and State cut support last year resulting in the service cuts that were implemented in June. 

LI Bus serves over 32 million riders a year, over 100,000 riders a day, and is an integral cog in Nassau County’s transit system, fostering economic development, reducing congestion and protecting the environment.

The groups called on the MTA to retract the proposal, and for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and state elected officials to work together to find a long term solution to Long Island Bus’ funding problems.

“If ultimately LI Bus would cease operating, it would have a devastating effect on the business community in Nassau and Queens County as well as their workforce,” said Daniel R. Perkins, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Long Island Association. “Let’s hope that the MTA, the State of New York and Nassau County can work together to find a solution so that doesn’t happen.”

“Yet another moment of crisis offers us the opportunity to rethink the way that bus service is delivered and paid for in the metropolitan region,” said Bob Yaro, President of Regional Plan Association. “The current inefficient and fragmented bus system should be consolidated into a single Regional Bus Authority, as was recommended by the Ravitch Commission. Until then, the MTA and Nassau County need to come up with solutions that don’t leave riders stranded.”

Eric Alexander, Executive Director of Vision Long Island said “Brainstorming can be a useful tool. However, some ideas have unintended consequences for the health and economic well being of working Nassau County residents. This is one idea the MTA should scratch from their list.”

“This is outrageous. This is a very short sided proposal. Long Island roads will be plagued by horrible congestion and people are not going to be able to get to work. The MTA cannot balance their budget problems on the backs of Nassau bus riders,” stated Lisa Tyson, Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

“For thousands of working people in Nassau County, Long Island Bus is irreplaceable,” said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “It is essential for the economic health of our region that a viable transportation system is available for people who need it.”

“These service cuts will impact over 100,000 Long Islanders who commute to and from work,” said Sarah Lansdale, Executive Director, Sustainable Long Island.  “The idea is an unrealistic approach to help funding woes that the MTA faces. The people of Nassau County deserve better, they deserve available mass transit that is safe and affordable.”

Sources: Compromise plan may keep LI Bus rolling

Updated: Jul 20, 2010 07:09 PM
By ALFONSO A. CASTILLO

While the MTA does not plan to set any money aside to fund Long Island Bus in the future, agency officials may be willing to keep the system moving temporarily if Nassau County shows a commitment to stepping up its financial support for the ailing bus company, transit sources said Tuesday.

Transit sources said Monday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority intends to withdraw all financial support from Long Island Bus in its 2011 budget. Long Island Bus is owned by Nassau County but largely subsidized by the MTA.

Without the $40 million that the MTA usually kicks in – roughly a third of LI Bus’ budget after fare revenue – experts say the system could afford to maintain only sparse service, or it could cease to exist altogether.

But transit sources said Tuesday that the MTA may soften its stance if Nassau agrees to a schedule of increased subsidies over the next several years that would eventually lead to the county covering the full $40 million.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has not said whether he would consider increasing the county’s subsidy to Long Island Bus, but has noted that, when including the state payroll tax enacted last year to support public transportation, Nassau is paying more than it has in years to the MTA.

Until about 10 years ago, Nassau County made up the difference of Long Island Bus’ budget after fare revenue and state aid. But over the years, the county has gradually decreased its subsidy. Last year, Nassau cut its subsidy for the bus system from $10.5 million to $9.1 million.

The MTA has made up the difference for years, but has said that in its current economic crisis, which includes an $800-million budget deficit, it can no longer afford to do so.

While Nassau may look to the state for help in paying its share, Assemb. Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), who chairs the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, said the request would come as several other counties, which receive far less state aid for their bus systems, are also looking for help.

New York State contributes about $44 million a year to Long Island Bus. Suffolk gets about half that for its bus system, and no help from the MTA.

“They do better than any other county in the state,” Brodsky said of Nassau. “I just think other counties are starting to ask why they have to pick up the burden of their own system, plus Nassau’s.”

Lisa Tyson, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Progressive Coalition, said it would be “irresponsible” for the MTA and Nassau not to reach a resolution.

“Nassau County would shut down without the bus system,” Tyson said. “With the amount of cars it takes off the roads and the amount of people it brings to jobs, it would clearly devastate the county.”

From the Desk of … Sen. Brian X. Foley

State Sen. Brian  X. Foley was joined by education advocates to call on his fellow Long Island senators to join him in  supporting  an  override  of  Gov. Paterson’s  veto of funding for education.

Last  week,  the senate and the assembly approved a budget bill that  included  $600 million in restorations to education funding. Foley  and  Sen. Craig  Johnson  were the only Long Island Senators who voted  in  favor of returning this money to school districts and taxpayers. Paterson had proposed cutting $1.5 billion.  Based on the formulas used  to  calculate  aid to school districts, schools within the 3rd Senate District  were  to  receive  the  highest  restoration amount of any senate district  in  the state.  Paterson vetoed the funding within hours of its passage.

“Funding  for  our  schools  is  not  something we can allow to become  a  proverbial  political  football,”  said  Foley.   “Long Island’s   schools   already   receive   funding   at   a   level  that  is disproportionate  to  the percentage of students we have. When state aid is cut,  the  difference  must  ultimately  be  made up either by our property owners in the form of taxes or by our school children in the form of larger classes, fewer  resources and reduced programs for athletics and the arts. I  hope  that  my Long Island colleagues will join me in voting to override the  governor’s  veto  so  that  our  children  can continue to receive the highest  level  of  educational  opportunity we can provide without schools needing  to  raise  taxes  to a level that will drive residents off of Long Island.”

The  funding  that was restored could be used districts to help offset  the property tax levies that were included in the budgets passed by residents  in  May.   The  original bill passed the senate without a single vote from the Republican minority.

“Even  though all of my Republican colleagues voted no on these restorations  the  first  time  we  considered them, thereby depriving school districts  of  funds  that could be used to reduce property taxes, they now have  a  chance to correct the mistake of their earlier vote,” said Foley.   “I  strongly  implore  them to stop saying no to our taxpayers and children, and start saying no to their leadership by standing up for Long Islanders.”

 “The  legislature  has  supported  restoration  of  school  aid statewide  totaling  $600  million, including approximately $65 million for Long Island school districts,” said Lisa Tyson, Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.  “For the state’s neediest districts like Brentwood, Wyandanch,  Central  Islip, William Floyd and Westbury these funds would be available to restore cuts to the classroom.  Governor Paterson vetoed these restorations  to our classrooms.  We have seen gains in student outcomes in needy districts on LI and across the state as a result of the state finally beginning to provide adequate funding to these needy school districts.  The Governor’s  veto  is  a  major  step  backwards  and  both  houses  of  the legislature  should  vote  to  override  it.  Long Island’s legislators, no matter  what party, need to stand together against Governor Paterson’s veto that is so destructive to our local schools.”

The leadership in the senate has indicated that they would only call  an  override  vote  if  it  was certain that there were the necessary number  of  votes available.  The support of Long Island’s senators for the override is crucial.

Crowd rallies for planned housing near mass transit

Originally published: June 28, 2010 8:22 PM
Updated: June 28, 2010 9:08 PM
By ZEKE MILLER  zeke.miller@newsday.com

More than two dozen people rallied late Monday afternoon to show their support for the proposed 490-unit AvalonBay Transit Oriented District in Huntington Station, a development designed to offer housing near mass transit to people of varying ages and incomes.

The demonstration, organized by the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a community advocacy group, came two weeks after a rally opposing the same development drew nearly 50 people to a Huntington Town Board meeting.

“This is a response to members of this community that are lying about the good this project will bring,” Lisa Tyson, executive director of the progressive coalition, said. “We want the board to know that the public supports this project.”

Holding signs saying “Yes in my Backyard” and shouting “YIMBY,” supporters of the project said it would reduce reliance on cars and bring needed tax and business revenue into the community.

The 26.6-acre site, north of East 5th Street and south of the Long Island Rail Road tracks, is within a quarter mile of the train station.

It is now vacant and zoned for single-family housing.

AvalonBay has proposed building both rental and for-sale units, with at least 25 percent devoted to “workforce housing” for people who work in the area and meet income qualifications.

Plans call for a clubhouse, swimming pool and outdoor play areas in addition to the housing units.

At the rally, David Hanover, a lifelong Huntington resident who is a junior at Cornell University, called for approval of the project so he can live in Huntington after he graduates.

“I want this to remain my backyard,” he said, channeling the LIPC rallying cry.

Ruth-Claire Weintraub, another lifelong resident, said that for years Huntington Station has been a dumping ground for the town.

“It’s not a dumping ground, it’s my home,” she said, “and I want it enhanced by AvalonBay.”

The Town Board must approve rezoning before Avalon Bay can proceed with the project.

Earlier this month the board postponed the vote until July 6.

The Elections "They" Don't Want You to Know About?

June 17, 2010

ALBANY, N.Y. – A movement is growing statewide for better oversight of the hundreds of special taxing districts around the state. Garbage collection, water, sewers – around New York, these services are often controlled by special taxing districts. There are hundreds of sub-governments, controlled by boards of commissioners, with direct access to the public’s pocketbook.

With the recession aggravating anger over taxes, some citizens would like to “vote the rascals out.” But election attorney and activist David Stonehill says few people know when the elections are, and he has joined with others to call for election reform.

“Essentially, it’s anarchy. Elections are being held all over the place, at different times, and people just aren’t aware of it.”

In New York, more than 100 special district elections are held every year, which means an election on the average of every 11 days. According to Lisa Tyson of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, special-district voter turnout averages a meager three to five percent. She has a solution to offer, however.

“By having election day for all these districts on the same day – which we’re going to say would be the same day as fire districts, the second Tuesday in December – everyone will know it’s their day to go vote in their special district election, and we will have more people participating in democracy.”

David Stonehill calls the situation “murky” and alleges that the people who control the wide array of special taxing districts take advantage of that murkiness to stay in power.

“We have districts for sanitation and water, and there’s a Memorial Day Parade taxing district, as well. It’s government run amok.”

Stonehill urges disgruntled taxpayers to tell their representatives to consider an Election Day Consolidation bill pending in the legislature.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service – NY

Schneiderman Secures Backing of Long Island-based Progressive Group

City Hall

By David Freedlander

State Senator Eric Schneiderman is slated to receive the endorsement of the Long Island Progressive Coalition today in his run for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

The group, a 31-year-old grassroots activist organization, hails from the backyard of one of Schneiderman’s top challengers to the Democratic nomination, Nassau county district attorney Kathleen Rice.

“This endorsement is not about [Rice] not doing certain things,” said Lisa Tyson, the group’s president. “This is about believing in people who can do certain things that we have cared about for a long time.”

The LIPC’s focus has been on campaign finance reform, affordable housing, and clean energy issues on Long Island, according to Tyson.

Tyson said that Rice had not rebuffed the group during her time in office, but that instead the LIPC and the DA’s office have not focused on the same issues.

In fact, Tyson noted, the LIPC is part of the Working Families Party, which gave Rice their line in both 2005 and 2009.

The endorsement could help bolster Schneiderman’s progressive bonafides as Democrats prepare for their state convention next week. His backers are trying to make the case that Rice is too moderate for a Democratic primary.

Schneiderman said that the endorsement showed the depth of his base.

“I am proud of the fact that I have the support of progressive organizations around the state,” he said. “I expect to get a lot of support from progressives and others out on Long Island.”