‘Affordable housing’ projects seek to keep residents on Long Island

By: Jim Mancari

Though shelter—along with food and clothing—is a basic necessity of life, rising prices are making affordable housing increasingly difficult to find for young people and families on Long Island.

Nassau and Suffolk counties are ranked in the top-10 least affordable living counties in the U.S. Currently, over one-fifth of Long Island households spend more than half their income on housing.

Meanwhile, since 2000, rents have increased 39 percent throughout the island.

Despite these statistics, both counties are taking strides to lessen the financial burden on residents by offering affordable housing.

What is affordable housing?

The Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC) introduced the “Yes in My Backyard” project in 1979. It defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the monthly household income for rent and utilities. The project also guarantees the housing will remain affordable to families who qualify under specific guidelines.

What steps are Nassau and Suffolk taking to increase availability of affordable housing?

On Oct. 31, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano joined the Long Island Housing Partnership (LIHP) in Inwood to break ground on four new 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath homes, which have been made affordable through grants from the county, the Federal HOME Program and the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation. LIHP seeks to provide increased housing opportunities for Long Islanders unable to afford decent and safe homes.

“It is extremely important that we increase affordable housing opportunities available to our residents,” said Mangano. “These homes provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to those who need it the most, while also creating construction jobs which are the backbone of our economy.”

Mangano said these homes will revitalize neighborhoods and put federal dollars to good use for residents. Barring the Nassau Interim Finance Authority’s approval of Mangano’s most recent 2012 budget proposal, Nassau residents will not experience a property tax increase in the near future.

“Any time you can create an affordable housing market, coupled with the certainty of no new county property taxes and then offer the individual or family the services and quality of life that Nassau County delivers, you create a very desirable place to live,” Mangano said.

Nassau County Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence) also dug his shovel into the earth at the Inwood ground breaking ceremony.

“Making affordable housing available across Nassau County is fundamental to our long-term economic prosperity,” said Kopel.

Several months ago in Suffolk County, the LIPC fought for the approval of a 490-unit mixed availability living community in Huntington Station designed by AvalonBay. Though ground has yet to be broken, LIPC director Lisa Tyson said the goal is for nearly 20 percent of these units to be affordable housing.

Additionally, for the past decade, land developer Gerald Wolkoff has fought for the approval of the Heartland Project in Brentwood, which would create new shops, restaurants and apartments, in addition to jobs. Of the proposed 9,000 rental units, 23 percent would qualify as affordable housing. Disputes over labor and money have delayed this $4 billion project.

What does the future hold?

By the time these housing projects are completed, there may not be any buyers left. In 2008, the Stony Brook University Center for Survey Research reported that 65 percent of Long Island residents between 18 and 24 said they were likely to move away from the island in the next five years.

“Most people cannot go from living in their parents’ home to owning a home,” said Tyson. “Young people don’t want to live in their parents’ basements or attics. They can’t pay $1,500 a month, so there is just very little opportunity.”

While the economy doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon, local officials hope that affordable housing will keep Long Island residents—and taxpayers—on the island for the long haul.

North and Central Merrick Community Association Takes on Tax Discussion

You can consolidate credit cards, student loans or even thoughts and ideas, so why not consolidate special taxing districts?

This is the question many North and Central Merrick residents asked and formed a discussion about it at the North Merrick and Central Community Association meeting at the North Merrick Library on Thursday.

The meeting featured a presentation by RESD (short for Residents for Efficient Special Districts) member Laura Mallay and information from Serena Alfieri, the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Government Efficiency Project Coordinator.  

A special taxing district is a local unit of government that provides a single service such as sanitation, water provision and fire services, according to the Long Island Progressive Coalition. There are an estimated 300 of such districts in Nassau County.  

“One of the thing Special Taxing Districts will tell you is that they represent local control, but on average 1 to 3 percent of eligible voters in the districts tend to vote,” Mallay said. “There are special taxing district elections every month of the year except for one and really, most residents are unaware of what special taxing districts elections even are.”

There are 213 special taxing districts with the power to raise taxes on Nassau County homeowners with no limits. RESD’s solution to making the districts less corrupt and more efficient are:

  • Consolidate special taxing districts where appropriate
  • Create budget oversight and review guidelines
  • Require public disclosure of budgets
  • Have unified Election Days for special taxing districts
  • Make special taxing district commissioners volunteers

“For the most part, Long Island was farmland more than 100 years ago and as the communities developed, residents needed to provide services so these special districts were formed and they provided what we needed,” Mallay explained. “As we’ve maxed out and there’s no room for growth, there is no additional tax base coming into these special taxing districts and it was really, just, overwhelming.”

Mallay also suggested that residents work together to lower their property taxes by joining RESD, writing the local elected officials, or writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, but most importantly to vote in the Special Taxing District elections.

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“We have four elementary school districts — North Bellmore, Bellmore, North Merrick and Merrick — and all get sent to one central high school district, the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District,” explained Claudia Borecky, president of the North and Central Merrick Community Association.  “People have talked about consolidating to maybe just a Merrick, maybe just a Bellmore.”

Mally said the Merrick school district consolidation issue tends to come up quite a bit at other area meetings she has attended and stressed, “we work with individuals that come to us with issues, we help to educate, we help to notify [the public]. Everybody should be voting, everybody should be participating, it should not be special interest running the show.”

Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule

By Karen Rubin Long Island Populist Examiner

After a heated and contentious public hearing on Monday, May 9, the Nassau County Legislature is poised to vote to adopt the redistricting map at its Monday, May 16 meeting.

The intention here, under the guise of preserving “one-man-one-vote,” especially in the 2nd Legislative District, where racial minorities and the majority, is to shift population around, eliminate one of the districts, now represented by a popular Democrat, David Denenberg, and create a new District 19, designed to emerge as a third minority/majority district, but one where the Republicans think they will be able to elect their own minority candidate. The calculation is to reach 13 out of 19 seats on the Legislature (as it is, the two minority Legislators, both democrats, have virtually no power because this body is not interested in compromise).

In fact, 544,000 people, or 44% of Nassau County’s 1.3 million population, would be shifted to a different district – a scale of shift that is unparalleled. In fact, in 2003, during the last reapportionment (under the Democratic Majority), only 50,000 voters were shifted. Nonetheless, the Republican legislators constantly attacked the Democrats for being “brutal” when they had the reins.

Republican Francis X. Becker, Jr. (LD 6), declared angrily that Valley Stream, East Rockaway and Rockville Center were “split by Democrats in the last redistricting. So it depends on who is doing the  gerrymandering” He actually admitted what the Republicans were doing was gerrymandering.

This is all being orchestrated by County Attorney John Ciampoli, who was brought in by County Executive Ed Mangano expressly for his considerable experience (which he boasted of during the late-night public hearing) reapportioning districts.

John Ciampoli made his bones as a political operative for the Republican party. As Counsel for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Albany, he was tasked with disenfranchising potential Democratic voters such as college students at Bard and Vassar and poorer people who may have moved residences in order to shift the balance to Republican candidates.

But during a public hearing lasting 14 hours and only winding up shortly before midnight, Ciampoli, speaking in velvet tones, presented himself as the noble knight protecting minority voting rights, preserving the cherished principle of “one man-one vote,” and the County’s guardian against a lawsuit which he contended would be imminent if the County did not address reapportionment.

He cited Sec 112 of the county’s charter, which requires that six months after receiving the Census data, the Legislature describe a plan for reapportionment.

That’s six months, not six weeks, as Ciampoli and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt are trying to do.

But the “race card” itself is a red-herring, designed to give cover and somehow avoid the smell test of gerrymandering when the plan comes to court, as the Republicans acknowledge is likely. This isn’t about preserving or creating minority representation – because even two or three minority members of the board would have no power to actually do anything. It is about carving out a Republican majority for generations. And how goes Nassau County may well go New York State and even the Congress and White House.

On April 25, just two weeks after unveiling the “map” for re-districting, prepared in secret by Ciampoli and two consultants he hired on his own without the Legislature’s knowledge or authorization, Schmitt called for one solitary public hearing, on May 9, at 10 a.m. Ostensibly, you are supposed to believe that Ciampoli only began work on the new map on April 15, after being entreated by Schmitt to save the County from a Constitutional catastrophe. That would be just 10 days to create a plan that shifts nearly half of the population into new districts, as described and defined in a 200-page bill.

Despite the fact the meeting was held when most people are at work and in a room with a capacity of only 251, huge contingents from Great Neck, Hempstead and the 2nd District turned out, filled the room, and during an extremely contentious hearing (at one point, police were called to threaten arrest after one man raised the specter of White Hoods and voter suppression), 150 people stood up to oppose the plan, including a few self-declared Republicans. (After 8 hours of public statements, there was only one statement of support, in the form of a letter which Schmitt read into the record).

While most of the speakers accused the Republicans of engineering districts that would “pack” and “crack” to dilute or weaken minority power, and otherwise gerrymander districts to weaken Democrats, what no one noted was that the aim was also to “pack” and “crack” Jewish votes. Besides Great Neck being severed in two, the plan is also to split the Five Towns (2 1/2 Towns), with Woodmere, Inwood and half of Cedarhurst put into a newly created “minority-influenced district” together with parts of Elmont and Valley Stream, leaving Hewlett, Lawrence and the rest of Cedarhurst in the district now represented by Republican Howard J. Kopel.

No one mentioned this. Apparently the fact that Jews are a mere 1% of the population doesn’t warrant consideration as a minority worthy of protection in terms of representation. But Jews are targeted as a political and financial base for Democrats. The Republican scheme – manifest across the country – is to weaken whatever source of Democratic influence there is. In Wisconsin and Indiana, it means going after public unions; in Michigan, it means empowering the governor to dissolve villages and install his own “manager”; in Florida, it is a new law making it harder to register and to vote. The reapportionment tactic was used very successfully by Tom DeLay in Texas, helping to turn a Democratic state into a Republican stronghold, which rippled into giving Republicans control of Congress, as well, in 2003.

You may think that Ciampoli’s Machiavellian tactics here in Nassau County are just local politics, but already, we have seen how replacing Democrat Craig Johnson with Republican Jack Martins returned the State Senate to Republican control.

“Nassau is the linchpin for the state,” attorney Cynthia Kouril, of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, commented to me. “They are destroying the [Democratic] party.” Kouril, an expertise in election law, voter protection and fair elections who told the Legislature that Ciampoli “misrepresented the statute” in order to justify this rush to reapportion,  added it is inconceivable for a reapportionment plan to affect 44 percent of voters. “You would have had to have a cataclysm” like a Hurricane Katrina uprooting entire communities, to warrant that scale of redistribution.

While Ciampoli kept reiterating his refrain that his plan complies with the Constitution, and satisfies the requirements of “compact” and “contiguous,” Kourcil pointed to the map and the odd shapes of the newly drawn districts – a T-Rex, a telephone receiver –  the fact that in one district, you would have to travel over water (no bridge) and through two other districts to get to the other side – as the very definition of gerrymandering. (Later, Republican Legislator Francis X Becker admitted as much.)

Ciampoli and Schmitt kept insisting that the census shifts mandated the County act immediately to change the boundaries.

No one actually disputed that the new census figures required reapportionment. The only point that was made, over and over, is that the county charter allows six months for this first step (of a three-step process), and that the process requires input from local communities, with consideration for alternate plans. That’s what happened in 2001, when Democrat Judy Jacobs was in charge, with a final plan adopted in 2003 after a series of hearings and alternative plans with the result that 50,000 people were shifted, compared to 544,000 in this plan.

Ciampoli had pointed out that all around the state, counties had come up with new maps – but he failed to mention that each and every one, including Westchester, Rockland, Erie, Albany, had has many as 11 public hearings before adopting their new map.

After the public had cleared out, around 6 pm, the Legislature reconvened just after 8 pm. with Ciampoli now answering questions from the Legislators. None of the Republicans asked questions – reserving their comments to attacks on Democrats who did.

The Democrats attempted, with little success, to get at what process, what method was used to derive this map, when Ciampoli began the process and whether he had discussed reapportionment with the County Executive or Republican leadership at the county or state level.

Campoli conveyed the impression that the map and the 200-page legislation to define the new districts were accomplished in a mere three-weeks time, after the 2010 Census data was reported on April 1,  but gave contradictory statements. At one point he said he had been working on the plan for a year, then he said he had been “thinking about it” and studying case law, but began the process of actually re-drawing maps on his own initiative, before receiving an official request from Schmitt, on April 15. He at first said he had no discussions with Republican leadership and then said he probably did “in passing.”

But there were questions I wanted to ask, and I was disappointed that the Democrats didn’t. For example, Ciampoli indicated that he relied on more than the census data – demographics, ages of people – and was fully well aware of voter registrations and voting patterns in terms of “making sure” the sanctity of the minority/majority districts were preserved. He knew exactly what proportion of a district voted for Obama, Schumer, Rice, Weitzman in 2008 and under the new plan. But no one asked how he applied that information to redrawing Great Neck, the Five Towns, and the other Democratically-controlled districts, particularly the district represented by David Denenberg, who is a particular target for elimination.

In fact, no one has explored the difference between population – which is what the Census is all about – and voter numbers at all.

Indeed, LD2 district is being split so that black sections are being sent to a predominantly white (and affluent) district, while a section that is Hispanic and known to have a large non-citizen (therefore non-voting) population is being kept in.

As Legislator Judi Bosworth pointed out in her questioning of Ciampoli, the shifts proposed by his map, changing from a north-south to an east-west configuration, seemed more calculated, than just trying to reach the ideal population of 70,637.

“Our District 10, has 70,502 population, when 70,637 is the target, so it is off by 135 people, which is 0.2% deviation. So for a point-2 deviation, you are changing almost half the district,” she asserted.

“In District 11, where there is 72,724 population, the deviation is 3.2%, after redistricting. In fact, though the 10th actually was almost at ideal, after redistricting, there would now be difference of only  1,557 with a deviation of 2.2%, so it would be worse in the 10th, and the 11th would be only marginally better. So it is difficult to understand.”

Ciampoli argued that the overriding issue was to “protect town lines” – and reduce the number of cuts from 7 in the 2003 redistricting, to only 3.

Legislator Wayne Wink challenged Ciampoli on his justification of carving up districts in order to reduce the number of town “cuts,” noting that throughout New Yor State, most townships have 10,000 to 15,000 population – akin to Long Island villages – but here in Nassau, 250,000 is the smallest township. “This is not matter of town lines being sacrosanct, because village lines are more closely akin to town on state level, when village lines being severed, but that apparently doesn’t merit consideration by town attorney.”

Ciampoli replied, “Town lines are part of guidelines enshrined in state law; village lines don’t have the same deference, and accordingly I followed that hierarchy.”

“It’s hard to believe that though you are now respecting the town line, because you have not only cut Great Neck Peninsula in half, but also divide villages, which is unthinkable,” Bosworth retorted. Great Neck Plaza is just one-third square mile, but it is the downtown, the transportation and commercial hub for the entire Peninsula. Yet,  under Ciampoli’s plan, this tiny village is split along Middle Neck Road, the main shopping street and thoroughfare. “That is  very problematic for the mayor and one could understand why.”

Pleading for More Time, More Input

But that is the bigger point that all the opponents made during the course of this solitary public hearing:

“It might have been nice to see different choices, so with public input, we might have been able to avoid splitting Great Neck Plaza, Great Neck Estates and Thomaston in two, and splitting Lake Success off entirely. That’s of great concern to my community. This is what happens when you don’t have the benefit of proper community involvement, or understand new boundaries, which from my perspective, don’t have any rhyme or reason.”

She was being kind, suggesting it was just Ciampoli’s lack of familiarity with the communities he was slicing and dicing, rather than a more politically strategic intention.

Consider, though, what diluting Great Neck’s votes and our political clout that comes with being a unified community would mean: County Executive Ed Mangano would have been able to close the 6th Precinct and shut down Long Island Bus service (still a possibility with Mangano’s plan to privatize the service), and Tom Suozzi would have been able to force us to shut down our waste treatment plant here and pipe our waste to Cedar Creek on the south shore.

Ciampoli, the Karl Rove of Nassau County politics, knows that Great Neck Peninsula is one of the most unified communities in the country and splitting Great Neck also dilutes one of the most significant power bases for the Democratic party left on Long Island.

Legislator Judi Bosworth stated, “Mr. Schmitt and the caucus are attempting to rush redistricting whereby more than half-million voters, 44% would be moved to new district. It’s plain wrong, most likely illegal, and should not be lauded by the county attorney who has a long history of voter suppression.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Robert Troiano, Legislator for LD 2, with a sly smile at Vincent Muscarela, the Republican Legislator for LD 8, warned that he is in for a new world, should he pick up that portion of LD 2 that is presently virtually entirely minority.

Amazingly, with all the census data that Ciampoli said he used, he said he did not consider median income when drawing the new districts, and did not see any problem, whatsoever, in pulling out a portion of Old Westbury into LD2, the minority/majority district, or breaking off the Village of Hempstead, and putting it in the same district as Garden City.

Ciampoli tried to divert attention away from the process or underlying strategy used to create the new map, telling the lawmakers this was “irrelevant”. The only thing that should is relevant, he claimed, was the map itself, that it comply with constitutional requirements and standards for “one-man-one-vote” so that the County not be subject to a lawsuit. He said the fact that the 2nd LD, now represented by Democrat Robert Troiano, had a 14% deviation (that is, 14 percent more population than the ideal number of 70,637), was sufficient “crisis” to warrant immediate action – not even waiting the allowed six months, as per the County charter.

Legislator Wayne Wink, though, pointed out the flaw in that argument, citing Supreme Court decisions which disregarded the “deviation” (by as much as 80% in Wyoming), in favor of an opportunity for public input and due consideration. He said that the case law all pointed to the fact that Sec 112 required only that the county demonstrate that it was acting to remedy the disparities in the districts; that the creation of a bipartisan commission to create the new lines in a deliberative way, would be sufficient to shield the county from a lawsuit. but more significantly, Sec 112 which Ciampoli and Schmitt keep citing as the imperative to adopt the new map now, without bipartisan or public input, allows for six months to act.

“This is intended to be a roadmap with public participation, with a bipartisan commission, and you are obviating that by denying public participation outside the 18 hours today…and you expect 7 days from now we will make this law,” He called the public hearing “a charade” and then said Ciampoli’s legal “counsel” was suspect.

“Ever since the hearings to appoint you, we have heard time and again about voter suppression and voter intimidation you have participated in directly, that’s what taints this entire process,” Wink said. “You, without any public input, shift 44% of entire population, 544,000 shifted under your tutelage, your guidance, with no public input, and based on your record on voter intimation in Yonkers, at Bard College, and all over the state, that is what has pre-ordained the outcome of these lines- your involvement in them, your history.”

This prompted moans from the Republican side and a rebuke of Wink from John J. Ciotti (R-LD 3), who otherwise asked no other probing questions of the County Attorney.

Schmitt said he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

This is the guy who justifies cuts in programs that benefit the poor, the elderly, children, disabled, and would happily see cuts to bus service because Nassau county is broke (another “crisis”), and yet has money to fritter away on a failed lawsuit to keep out NIFA, and now a reapportionment plan where the new districts look like a Rorschach test.

Ciampoli indicated that with his handy-dandy computer program, he could probably make amendments to the map PDQ (“I live to serve,” he quipped in answer to a question from Legislator Kevan Abrahams). Schmitt, who during the hearing professed no understanding of the term “bloodsoaked” used by a Hempstead resident to reflect concern over loss of voting rights, also gave the barest hint that he might be open to making some changes in light of the virtually unanimous opposition expressed during the public hearing.

“Based on the outpouring of folks,  it’s quite possible you will be taking a look at different avenue?” Abrahams said hopefully “It’s quite possible,” Schmitt replied, possibly more to end the hearing. “I am well aware I am taking my cue from tenor and tone of public comment – the Democrats comments, Great Neck, Uniondale. They are not too happy with what is proposed, I am aware.”

But Schmitt also steeled himself, manifesting that wonderful (that is, obnoxious) machismo that Republicans are strutting around the country, saying d he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

At points, the public hearing disintegrated into a shouting match, and the comments turned on Schmitt and the way he was handling the hearing.

“I am shocked and appalled at how you have addressed the public with no concern for our needs,” declared Regis Thompson, NY Democratic club. “It shows me hatred, not love prevails on this committee… Your neighbors must be shocked you have taken off the sheets.”

To which Presiding Officer Schmitt retorted, “if you are the best that the Hempstead Democratic Club can offer….” sparking a huge uproar. Two Hempstead men rallied to her side, Ramel Smith and Dennis Jones and police were summoned, threatening to arrest them, and escorted them out to the lobby. The situation cooled off  and all three returned.

Later, Ramel Smith addressed the board from the podium saying, “My grandmother and grandfather were Gertude and  Johnny Smith. In the 1960s, they were beaten by police with bolts at the bottom of their clubs. They fought for me to have a right to have my vote heard, as well as my mother and my son. You telling me today, to hell with my grandparents, mother, son.”

More Highlights from the Hearing

Here are some highlights from the testimony at Monday’s sole public hearing on the plan for reapportionment:

Minority Leader Diane Yatauro: “As I look out at huge crowd gathered, I am both encouraged and deeply angered – encouraged to see so many of constituents care so deeply about what is about to transpire, and are here to fight to stop this madness: cynical, hastily drawn map, in secret by couple of Republican operatives, Ciampoli at the direction of County Executive Ed Mangano and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, angry at so-called public hearing is held at the County seat rather than out in the community, and on a weekday morning, when most can’t attend because of work, angry because this hearing is nothing but a farce. The Republican caucus are going to hear you out, make some nice dip0lomatic phrases.

“The move of over 44% of the population, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, ishurried in direct contradiction of the charter, but business as usual [for the Republicans]. This is how the self-serving Republican protection plan will play out.

“I know Schmitt will claim to be the great protector of minority, despite voting against their judges, commissioners and community interests… He would turn the Five Towns into 2 ½ towns, sever villages, dilute communities, and the rights of veterans, union workers…

“This will end up again, in court – that’s where we will fight. We want to use the right process – a nonpartisan redistricting commission, with hearings in the very communities that are affected and redraw the lines for 2013,” Yatauro said.

County Attorney John Ciampoli: “This is a historic moment in this County’s history. It presents an opportunity for enfranchisement and empowerment, this is not a county subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, yet this legislature pursuant to your directive has chosen to create a new minority/majority district in the western end, and to level the playing field in that part of the county to choose a representative of their choice.”

Valerie Fineman, Great Neck: “I appalled at what is being done here today… This redistricting is proposed with undue haste, rushing the allowed time available from the 6 months you have available…. It also demonstrates the blatant, unlawful, and illegal power grab…. This doesn’t represent the will of the people involved. The equal franchise is not represented by this plan, every community is hurt or divided by it. Time is needed to respond to local community needs and interests.”

Louise Hochberg, Great Neck United Parent Teacher Council: “The County Attorney relies on Sec 112, but it is Sec 113 that tells us how to accomplish the redistricting mandated by 112: 113 says there shall be a temporary redistricting advisory commission established each legislative term in which the legislature is required to apportion the county legislative districts as a result of the federal decennial… You can’t pick and choose which sections of the charter you will follow and when you will follow… Why are  you circumventing the bipartisan spirit in which our charter tells us to approach the redistricting issue?”

Continue reading on Examiner.com: Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule – Long Island populist | Examiner.com http://www.examiner.com/populist-in-long-island/nassau-county-gop-ram-through-redistricting-plan-aimed-at-securing-majority-rule#ixzz1MAHxjCnP

MTA proposes putting the brakes on many LI Bus routes

(03/02/11) HEMPSTEAD – The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to cut more than half of Long Island Bus routes this summer in an effort to close a $400 million deficit.

Out of Nassau’s 48 bus lines, 25 could be eliminated, leaving entire communities such as Great Neck and Elmont without bus service.

County Executive Ed Mangano (R-Nassau) says since the county owns the buses and the terminals, maybe now is the time to privatize the system.

Mass transit expert Lisa Tyson, of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, says the service cuts could force 16,000 bus riders to drive, increasing congestion on local roads.

Public hearings on the Long Island Bus cuts are scheduled for March 23 at Hofstra University.

If approved, the proposed cuts would go into effect in July.

Progressives rally under 'One Nation' banner, invigorated for midterm elections

Progressives – thought to be sitting out the midterm elections – came by the tens of thousands to rally in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 2. They came from different places and different backgrounds and championing different issues and agendas, but they came in force under a “One Nation” banner, in recognition of the consequences if Democrats lose control of Congress.

Many came to use their bodies as the counterpoint to the Tea Party and Glenn Beck who rallied at the same place, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in August. They wanted the pictures showing the rainbow of colors of t-shirts showing affiliations to unions and causes, to mirror the image and contradict the notion of an “enthusiasm gap” for Democratic candidates.

In contrast to Glenn Beck’s rally which had a religious theme, the progressives’ message, “Jobs, Justice, Education” more closely tracked Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which was recited by a group led by James Dean.

Instead of the “Vote for Change” message of the Tea Party, the signs here read “Standing Up for the Change We Voted For”.

The 50 Long Islanders on the Long Island Jobs With Justice bus were representative of the range of issues, causes and groups that met up at the rally: peace activists, unionists, environmentalists, advocates for public education, universal health care, and an economy that brings about full employment. Some were veterans of protests going back to Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War, and some were on their first march on Washington, including 15 students from Stony Brook University.

The students were protesting the privatization of the state university system, the cuts in spending to public education that has resulted in the South Hampton campus being closed, and the rise in tuition at state and city universities, making them unaffordable, or sending them out with $25,000 in debt, and turning them into “wage slaves”

Helene Manas, of the Long Island Progressive Coalition and a New York City school teacher, said, “It is really, really important to show the nation that the Tea Party is minimal and the true majority are like us. I believe people deserve justice, equal rights, good education and health care.”

Helene and her husband, Mark Manas, said they were championing the issue of Fair Elections Now – publicly financed elections – to mitigate the massive flow of money now for wealthy individuals, corporations and special interest groups to literally buy candidates “Money is the cancer in politics,” they said.

The sentiment “Money is buying all our candidates, even Progressives,” was echoed by Esther Confino, but Confino, who is secretary of the Long Island Coalition for a National Health Plan, was advocating on behalf of a single payer system.

The so-called Obamacare health reform that has the Tea Party so teed-off, “Is only the beginning.” She expressed the upset Progressives had that the Obama Administration so quickly gave up on expanding the Medicare system through the age groups or offering a public option, and even recalled how single-payer advocates were arrested at Senator Max Baucus’ hearing. “Single payer people were in mourning.”

But, she noted,  “If we didn’t get [what we got], it would have taken 30 years” before there was any health care reform at all.

She reminded Progressives of what is at stake: Republicans are calling to privatize Social Security and repeal the health care reforms which were won, which only really provided access to health insurance. Connecticut’s Republican candidate for Senate, Linda McMahon, has said that the minimum wage should be reduced.

Naomi Feldheim of Great Neck, who has been marching since Martin Luther King, said she was marching this time to “change priorities of country.”

She urged support for the “War is Making You Poor” act that is in Congress. The spending on unending wars is “taking away from education, the social net, creation of jobs, all the things FDR addressed with WPA. We need to rebuild infrastructure, education and health needs instead of killing our youth in foreign wars.”

Charlene Obenauer, director of Long Island Jobs with Justice and the organizer of the bus, pointed to the “Move the Money” campaign, from war and foreign spending to domestic issues.

Since 2001, the cost of wars totals $1.1 trillion; the cost to New York State is $97 billion. The bill to Nassau County taxpayers in fiscal 2011 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $1.8 billion.

That same amount of money could provide 1,675,621 Long Island households with wind-powered renewable electricity for a year; pay for 25,051 police or firefighters, provide 297,243 scholarships for a year or provide Pell Grants to 321,719 students; provide health care to 717,661 low-income children, pay for 191,404 Head Start slots, pay 21,976 elementary school teachers, or provide 182,269 military veterans with VA medical care.

Nancy Durgan of Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement, said, “We have got to stand up and make noise and not just make it like the Tea Party, and move the money to the intense need we have at home.”

Paul Auerbach of the Interfaith Alliance, said he was also showing opposition to war and to bring that money home.

Judy Gardner, Huntington, of Code Pink, said she was marching  because, “We have to be visible, or else you’re not there. If we aren’t involved, we get the government we deserve. We have to be out there.”

Charlotte Coons, also from Code Pink, said she is marching “to bring the war money home” and, because the perpetual “War on Terrorism” has resulted in compromised privacy, she added, ” I march for civil liberties.”

Bob Marcus, of the North Country Peace Group, Setauket, picked up on the themes of the march, “One Nation working together for jobs, justice, education, economy that works for all to create one million new jobs right away; a world class public education system; end racism; fix the broken immigration system; that workers have green jobs and safe working conditions; a clean environment; equality for all women; peace; energy independence; public education and transportation.”

Maria Contreras, with the Long Island Jobs with Justice board, was advocating to fix the broken immigration system, another theme of the rally.She urged support for the DREAM Act, languishing in Congress, which would have addressed the complex issue of undocumented immigrants (by some estimates 11 million people). It would provide that enrollment in high school or college as well as military service would provide a path to citizenship. But the group wants other paths – such as community service or owning a small business that employs other people.

Susan Darcy, of West Hempstead, a special education department chairman who also hosts meetings of Moving Forward Long Island, said she wanted to show that Progressives were just as much a force as Tea Party. “They say they want America back. We want to go forward.”

Zina Fayache of Mineola said she wanted to be at the rally because, “We have to support the President. He’s not perfect, he’s but going in the right direction, moving forward.. He was left a lot of problems and he’s solving them, making our world a better place. That’s very important to me.”

Jack Belelo recalled President Harry Truman’s Labor Day 1948 speech. “He called them Republican Reactionaries, not Conservatives That’s the term we should use. The Tea Party is reactionary.

“In 1948, which was only 15 years from the New Deal, Truman was the underdog. These Republican Reactionaries were against Social Security, the FDIC, the Wagner Act (that gives workers the right to organize and strike), child labor laws.

“He said, ‘If you vote for these Republican reactionaries, you will get what you deserve.'”

The same Republican Reactionaries, he said, were against Civil Rights Act in 1964, voting rights and Medicare in 1965 “and every Progressive legislation.

“Although Obama is not perfect, not as progressive as we would like, he is such a damn sight better, and if we don’t support him and the Dems in his corner, we will get what we deserve.”

“No matter how you feel about Obama and the Democrats,” echoed Andrew of Stony Brook’s Environmental Club, “they are all that we have to work with. Obama and the Dems are not perfect, but in November, we have to come out to vote. If not, it will be the Tea Baggers.

“The biggest problem with Progressives,” he said, “is that they don’t come out in support each other..My interest is environmental, but I support other causes. The only way for our agenda to succeed is to support each other.”

But march, gather, rally and support each other they did.

With some 400 different organizations supporting the rally, including United for Peace and Justice, Moveon.org, NAACP, 1199 SEIU, AFL-CIO, Green for All, United States Student Association, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Campaign for America’s Future, National Action Network, Center for American Progress, Jewish Funds for Justice, Veterans For Peace, Code Pink, and Progressive Democrats of America, to list but a few, the marchers poured out from some 2,000 buses, plus cars, the metro.

They carried signs as diverse as the people carrying them: “Corporations Are Not People.” “Make Food Not War.” “We March for Hope Not Hate.” “No Turn Right”

There were even signs thanking Obama, such as carried by twin sisters Valerie & Winnie Mackend, of New York City, “Thank you Obama for passing health care reform; withdrawing troops from Iraq; restoring our reputation abroad; increasing aid to veterans; appointing the first Latina to the Supreme Court and restarting Mideast peace talks.”

In fact, as marches go, this one was “mellow,” Feldheim later commented.

Seven feeder marches funneled towards the Lincoln Memorial. People lined the Reflecting Pool.

Gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, Progressives stood up for their causes, but were careful not to betray frustration with the Obama Administration or Democrats for compromises on everything from continuing the Bush war on terror in Afghanistan to the too-quick abandonment of single-payer or public option in the health care program, to the disrespect shown teachers in the press to tie compensation and job security to test scores.

Instead, the call was for unity.

“We are together. This march is about the power to the people,” said MSNBC host Ed Schultz. “It is about the people standing up to the corporations. Are you ready to fight back?…This is a defining moment in America. Are you American?..This is no time to back down. This is time to fight for America… We as one nation must fight … We must vote Nov. 2.”

One speaker lambasted “The high blood pressure of greed and anemia of deeds.”

Van Jones, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, brought together the concern for jobs and the need to address climate change: “Most important is green power… We need to beat global warming and put Americans back to work at the same time.”

“Let farmers have a new business –not just food production but energy production” – wind turbines, growing energy crops.

“The environment is in crisis, and economy is in crisis. The Earth is overheating, temperature is going up and employment going down. Fix both at the same time.”

Al Sharpton, advocating on behalf of public education and summoning up the Progressives to go out and knock on doors to get out the vote for November 2, intoned, “You can’t scapegoat teachers- there’s a difference between accountability and union busting….

“In four weeks, is the midterm ‘exams.’ We’ve got to hit the pavement, knock on doors, from 10/2 to 11/2. We will pass the midterm exam.”

As of 3 pm, the peak of the march, the organizing group, One Nation Working Together, estimated 175,000 people, “representing all 50 states and our country’s great diversity – joined together at the Lincoln memorial to re-claim the American dream and raise their voices for jobs, justice and public education. 

“It’s inspiring to look out and see so many people — even more than we even expected — from so many different places coming together as one nation in support of jobs, justice and public education,” said Leah Daughtry, national campaign director of One Nation Working Together. “This is an important moment in the progressive movement – as each person returns home and continues to rally our fellow Americans as we head to the ballot box in November and re-commit ourselves to our common future.”

–Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner

Young people are leaving L.I. for more affordable areas

By Alex Costello

Part two in a series, “Plugging the brain drain.”

The lack of affordable housing on Long Island is forcing young adults to leave the area in droves. And as their population decreases and the cost of living keeps increasing, businesses are also taking part in the exodus, damaging the Long Island economy.

According to a poll conducted by the Long Island Index, 69 percent of people 18 to 34 are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to leave Long Island within the next five years. According to Maritza Silva-Farrell, a community organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, what young people want, more and more, is to live in an area like Huntington Village — an area with shops, restaurants and bars in a walkable area.

The best places to develop more areas like that are in the downtowns that already exist in many Nassau communities. “When you see the sea of parking we have on Long Island, isn’t that a possibility?” said Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index. “If people would be a little less scared of the possibility of multi-level parking structures — which are ubiquitous throughout the country, but pretty rare on Long Island — there might be some exciting possibilities.”

But restrictions placed by villages and towns on building height and density means that anyone who wants to build an affordable housing complex in a downtown area—or even add on to an existing structure — must apply for a zoning variance, which can be a long, expensive and ultimately futile process.

White-bread Long Island

Keeping communities limited to mainly single-family homes restricts the people who can live in the area, creating homogeneous communities.

In 2000, 62 percent of the homes sold on the Island were priced under $250,000. Just six years later, only 4 percent of homes were. “So while we used to talk about starter homes, now we talk about starter castles on Long Island,” Golob said. “Because the size of the homes, the cost of the homes is completely out of league with what an average person can afford.”

The dearth of affordable housing helps creates homogenous communities. But what many young people want is diversity.

“It’s unfortunate, but people on Long Island don’t really agree with the idea of mixed-income communities,” said Silva-Farrell, whose organization petitions in favor of affordable housing developments at many local government meetings. “And race is a big issue. And that’s why the opposition sometimes tries to use code words to say, ‘We don’t want people who don’t look like me in this community.’”

“There are fewer and fewer people who look for the homogeneity that was a hallmark of Long Island growth in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Golob. “A lot of people fled New York City when integration was being ‘forced upon them’ in the schools, and that helped to create the kind of homogeneity they wanted.

“But that doesn’t work for the future,” she added. “That’s not what the world is about. And that really takes some active work to change.”

Less housing, less business

A lack of affordable housing pushes not only residents away from Long Island, but businesses as well.

With housing costs as high as they are, the cost of living on Long Island is much higher than in other areas. So to pay their workers a livable wage, businesses would have to pay higher salaries — something they can’t always afford.

“And as a result, business aren’t coming here with the kinds of jobs that would fuel the economy, because they know people can’t find homes here,” said Golob. “So a lot of businesses are looking to move elsewhere, where they can pay their work force the kinds of salaries that are supportive to what they need to get their businesses going. And they know the workers would then be able to find housing.”

According to a 2005 report from the Urban Land Institute, communities with affordable housing units were more desirable for businesses. That same study also said that a large and diverse labor pool — two things Long Island isn’t known for — was the most important factor when businesses were choosing where to relocate.

“You find a lot of new businesses going to other areas where there is more affordable housing available,” Golob said. “So the way this problem ricochets and creates other problems in the overall economy is scary.”

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.”

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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 MTA's plan to yank funding for LI Bus

Updated: Jul 23, 2010 07:30 PM

A coalition of civic, transportation, business, labor, planning and environmental groups is opposing the MTA’s plan to pull its funding from Long Island Bus.

In a statement issued Friday, the coalition said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ‘s plan to withdraw about $40 million in funding from the Nassau County-owned bus company is misguided and a “system killer.”

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

MTA officials said this week they can no longer afford to make up the deficit it says is created by Nassau’s low contribution. Nassau County contributes $9.1 million toward LI Bus’ $133-million annual budget.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has said the county cannot afford to substantially increase its subsidy to the system. He says the county is paying the MTA more than ever as part of a newly created payroll tax.

The groups called on the MTA to retract the proposal, and for Mangano and state elected officials to work together to find a long-term solution to the bus agency’s 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 business group. “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.”The Regional Plan Association, Long Island Progressive Coalition, the smart-growth group Vision Long Island, and the Long Island Federation of Labor AFL-CIO , also joined in decrying the MTA’s plan.

Mangano has said he is exploring the possibility of privatizing LI Bus, which serves more than 100,000 riders a day.