Posts Tagged ‘Suffolk County’

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

Friday, November 4th, 2011

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.

Long Island’s Special Taxing Districts

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

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.”

Pannullo To Step Down from Suffolk Community Council

Saturday, June 26th, 2010
Written by Fred Scaglione   
Saturday, 26 June 2010 20:12

 

Judy Pannullo

 

Judy Pannullo will be leaving her post as Executive Director of the Suffolk Community Council.  Pannullo joined the Council as its Executive Director in 2004.

During her tenure, Pannullo oversaw a significant expansion of programs.  These include the Network of Women with Disabilities – addressing the barriers to access to healthcare; Accessible Long Island, addressing the issue of aging in place; and the Unity project addressing the unmet needs of the Latino population in Brentwood – offering English and computer classes as well as working in close cooperation in with the Suffolk County Police.

Pannullo came to SCC after serving for 14 years as Director of The Long Island Progressive Coalition, where she managed the expansion of their programs and outreach which include the Brookhaven Lab Advisory Committee – addressing the needs of the local community and their concern about the safety and health of the Lab; Long Island Jobs with Justice – addressing the need for labor and community to work together; and the Environmental Leaders Network – addressing environmental concerns in Brentwood and ending the mosquito spraying in Babylon Village.

“It has been a distinct honor and pleasure to work with so many wonderful people who care so deeply about social issues” said Pannullo.

 “Judy’s departure will be a great loss for the Suffolk Community Council and for the people we serve,” said Michael McClain, the Council’s Board President. “Her work with the Council during the past eight years has made a positive difference in the lives of many people and many organizations.”

The Suffolk Community Council’s board is currently conducting a search for Pannullo’s replacement and hopes to name a successor shortly.

During her career, Pannullo has been honored with the Suffolk County Human Rights Lawrence Timpa Award for Professionalism, United Auto Workers Community Service Award, LI Jobs with Justice Community Award, the LI Progressive Coalition Long Islander Who Has Made A Difference Award, Yaphank Civic Association Environmental Activism Award and the Town of Babylon Women’s Award.

She currently serves on the Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force, the Suffolk County 10- year Plan to End Homelessness Committee, Suffolk County Health Care Task Force, Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, is Co-Founder and Vice President of Long Island Jobs With Justice, Department of Social Services Community Advisory Committee, United Way’s Executive Advisory Committee, and HELP Suffolk,.

And she has served on the Suffolk County Commission on Creative Retirement, Newsday’s Everyday Hero committee, Intergenerational Strategies, Long Island North Shore Heritage Area Commissioner, LI Progressive Coalition,, Long Island Health and Welfare Council., Brookhaven National Laboratory Community Advisory Council, Research and Education Project of Long Island, Suffolk County Department of Labor Lead Prevention Advisory Board, LI Occupational and Environmental Health Clinic Board, Town of Babylon Board of Ethics and Chairperson of the Babylon Environmental Conservation Commission.

Getting Political

Monday, November 12th, 2007

LIPC Featured in Newsday’s Act II Section

BY JIM MERRITT

November 3, 2007

The U.S. presidential candidate who wins Deborah Weiner’s vote next year can count on the kind of hands-on support that reaches beyond the ballot box to classic grassroots volunteerism.

Weiner, 77, a social worker who lives in Copiague, is a registered independent. She can’t vote in Democratic or Republican primaries, but in the past decade she has managed to have an impact on campaigns by volunteering for politicians who share her views on health care and other concerns of the elderly.

No task is too humble or grand for Weiner, who is known as a “super senior” in Suffolk County politics. Weiner published op-ed articles praising then-Rep. Rick Lazio in the 1990s, and she also did mundane tasks such as stuffing envelopes with his campaign literature. When Lazio ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2000, Weiner made telephone calls seeking support from voters and rode in pro-Lazio motorcades.

Says Weiner, “it is rewarding work, even stuffing envelopes for politicians whose issues I respect.”

There are thousands more people like Deborah Weiner active on Long Island, political observers say. Numerous studies have shown that adults 50 and older are among the most likely people to volunteer in political campaigns. With the presidential race, Long Island’s five Congressional seats and state legislative offices on the ballot next November, opportunities for activism will abound.

Older volunteers say they take on the work for many reasons, including a desire to influence policy and “make a difference,” and also a wish to make new friends.

The work ranges from campaign office tasks such as envelope stuffing and advocacy calls to “shadowing” a candidate on neighborhood visits. There also are opportunities for stay-at-home volunteer work, including relatively new ones such as blogging and e-mailing for support on the Internet. Some Long Islanders, such as Hempstead Town Board member Dorothy Goosby and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, start as political volunteers and develop the proverbial “fire in the belly” that propelled them to run for public office for the first time in their 40s or 50s.

Likelier to vote

No other demographic turns out more voters or has a higher voter-participation rate than people over 50, according to research from AARP, which notes that exit polling showed voters in that age group cast half of the ballots in last November’s election.

The 50-and-older crowd isn’t just pulling the lever for candidates who share their values and political goals. They also are pitching in at campaign offices, at the headquarters of organizations that support a favorite cause, and at their workstations at home.

“As Americans age, they are more likely to volunteer for such traditional campaign tasks as stuffing envelopes and holding fundraising house parties,” said Carolyn Cocca, associate professor of politics, economics and law at SUNY Old Westbury. They also are active in the world of Internet activism, known as “netroots” activities. They are blogging, fundraising online and producing videos for YouTube, Cocca said.

They flock to paid positions as elections inspectors. “There’s a higher percentage of folks 60 and over” among the 6,000 elections inspectors who typically work at Suffolk County’s polling places on primary and general election days, says Thomas E. Knobel, assistant to the commissioner of elections for the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Elections inspectors, hired by the board, are paid a stipend of $200 for duties such as maintaining order at the polling place and collecting voter signatures in poll roster books. Volunteer work as election day poll watchers also is available from Long Island’s political parties.

Blogging boomers

Although there’s a perception that the Internet is the province mainly of younger people, many of today’s bloggers are baby boomers, says Dominick Miserandino of Oceanside, president of TheCelebrityCafe.com, which features a Web site for moderates on the political spectrum, tothecenter.com.

Visitors can submit opinion pieces and add comments to posted essays. The most frequent contributors of comments to the Web site, which draws 300,000 readers a month, are baby boomers born in the 1950s, Miserandino says.

“There’s something about believing in something, and being part of trying to effect a change for the better,” says Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant. Dawidziak works with candidates from both major political parties, but he is best known as a consultant to the presidential campaigns of Republicans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.

Dawidziak says the camaraderie and fellowship of a political campaign “can be intoxicating,” making volunteers return again and again for their political fix.

“I enjoy doing it. You meet people who are like-minded,” said Ruth Silverman, 59, of Merrick, an adjunct professor of sociology. Several years back, Silverman began volunteering for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and now regularly works with the Long Island Progressive Coalition in Massapequa.

Lisa Tyson, the coalition’s director, said the majority of the organization’s 1,000 members are 40 or older. She said the coalition leans left but welcomes anyone who wants to participate in a group discussion, serve on a committee, or make calls in a phone bank. They tend to work most on issues such as health care, election reform and affordable housing, Tyson said.

Another active coalition member, Barbara Buehring, 53, of Seaford, a retired copy editor, said she has found great satisfaction working on local issues such as pushing for power plant efficiency to lower pollution. She has written articles for the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s newsletter and used her computer skills to update their database and Web site. “Instead of knocking your head against a brick wall like Iraq, these are smaller issues, and we can possibly effect some change, at least right here on Long Island,” Buehring said. Buehring will receive the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s volunteer of the year award in March.

There’s plenty of room for partisanship in volunteerism. Michael D’Innocenzo, 72, and Andrea Libresco, 48, of Mineola, are a married couple who say they perennially find joy in political activism.

Libresco, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and teaching at Hofstra University in Hempstead, immediate past-president of the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Nassau Chapter, currently serves as co-president of the board of the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives.

She worked for D’Innocenzo in 1984, when he ran – and lost – a race for Congress in the Fifth District in southern Nassau on an anti-nuclear platform. D’Innocenzo was in his late-40s at the time, and would go on to run unsuccessfully for a North Hempstead town board seat.

An active citizenry

D’Innocenzo, a history professor at Hofstra, said, “Democracy cannot be effective” unless “citizens get energized and become active rather than just consumers of the decisions that other people make.”

Libresco, who also is a Democratic committeewoman, believes potential volunteers should inform themselves about the issues before choosing a candidate for whom to work. “People can do door knocking, where they talk about issues. They can be passionate about their candidate with neighbors and friends,” Libresco said.

Libresco and D’Innocenzo already are planning to make get-out-the-vote phone calls to fellow Democrats on Super Tuesday primary day, Feb. 5.

Approaching activism in a different way is Johanna Cervellino, 70, of Smithtown, a former global studies teacher in the Three Village School District. After retiring from teaching in 1997, Cervellino began to devote more of her time to the Long Island Coalition for Life.

Volunteers lobby for anti-abortion legislation in Albany, advocate for adult stem cell research rather than embryonic stem cell research and push for adequate care for “people at the end of life,” Cervellino says.

Volunteers in the nonpartisan organization also participate in “peaceful presences in front of abortion clinics” and give out clothing, formula and prenatal-care information at crisis pregnancy centers,” Cervellino said. She added, “we stress information and education.”

Bitten by the bug

Whether working from home or at a campaign office, volunteers are generally welcomed and given a task to do, officials and volunteers say. Officials often set aside a desk in their offices for volunteers.

McCarthy (D-Mineola) started out as a volunteer distributing campaign fliers door-to-door for Mineola Mayor Ann Galante in the 1970s. She expects to see her own perennial volunteers, many of them 50 and older, returning when her campaign office is set up in the spring.

Once you are bitten by the political bug, activists say, there’s no telling where it will end. Middle-age people tend to enter the political arena after years of volunteering for the local party apparatus, or because of a watershed moment in their lives, Dawidziak says.

McCarthy is an example of a watershed candidate who came to politics later in life. She was nearly 50 and a nurse with minimal experience in politics before her husband was killed and her son was critically injured in a nationally covered 1993 shooting aboard an LIRR train, an incident that eventually propelled her to gun control advocacy and a seat in Congress.

McCarthy, now 63 and preparing to run for a seventh term, said in an interview that her nursing background helps her in Congress.

“You have to have a lot of patience, especially if passing an amendment, and very patiently explain to everybody every part of the bill,” she said.

Added McCarthy: “It’s amazing when I look back how life does prepare you to be in this particular job.”

Want to get involved? Find out more:

Got the urge to volunteer for a candidate or a cause? Here are some political organizations, officeholders and issues-oriented groups that welcome volunteers and some paid workers. Some Web sites include a volunteer page with a link to an e-mail address.

Long Island Progressive Coalition, 516-541-1006, lipc.org

Sierra Club Long Island Group, 516-826-0801; newyork.sierraclub.org/longisland

Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, 516-741-4360; longislandpeace.org
Related website: http://www.newsday.com/business/custom/retirement/ny-act2spd5442353nov03,0,454359.story