Sides gird for Baldwin sanitation district vote

Laura Mallay, the executive director of the organization

Laura Mallay, the executive director of the organization Residents for Efficient Special Districts, with a petition in front of Hempstead's Sanitary District No. 2. (Credit: Kevin P Coughlin, 2011)

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It came down to a simple resolution that drew no debate and took maybe two minutes of terse explanation before a vote.

But it was a moment eight years in the making for Laura Mallay, executive director of Residents for Efficient Special Districts. She watched as the five-member board of Sanitary District 2 in Baldwin recently set a Dec. 12 date for a voter referendum on whether to dissolve the sanitation district that serves 55,000 residents.

So special was the moment that Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a nonprofit activist group that provided the army of volunteers to gather most of the 5,300 signatures that forced the board action, videotaped the brief proceedings for posterity.

"It was wonderful to see the day finally come," Mallay said afterward.

Mallay, 41, of South Hempstead, concedes the battle is far from over.

"It's going to be an uphill battle all along the way," she said.

If a dissolution vote succeeds, the district board must then put forward a plan for how the district would be replaced, which would require a second public vote. There also is a pending lawsuit in which dissolution foes argue that some were duped into signing petitions.

A district letter describes the coalition as made up largely of outside "paid political operatives" who are spreading "erroneous, inaccurate and slanderous" information. "Don't be deceived by people with a political agenda."

Mallay and Tyson counter that district officials improperly used district resources to preserve the eight-decade-old district and have bullied residents who signed petitions.

Dissolution proponents say residents in Baldwin, Roosevelt, Rockville Centre and parts of other surrounding communities pay garbage bills averaging $500 per year per home. Proponents say that's twice as much as what they would pay if the Town of Hempstead collected their garbage.

District officials say savings estimates are overblown. They warn that the 75 sanitation workers would be put out of work and that the town would not provide the same level of service.

Ken Gray, attorney for District 2, also noted that two judges have rejected efforts by dissolution supporters to block the district from using its resources to communicate with residents.

"The district has not only the right, but the obligation to make sure the residents are fully informed of the facts when they go into the voting booth," Gray said.

Proponents had hoped to get the referendum on the ballot on Election Day with high turnout expected for the presidential election. The December date the board set follows by a day the fire district elections, traditionally low turnout contests that occur amid the holiday shopping season.

Mallay has personal experience in sanitation district elections. She ran unsuccessfully for the district board in 2002 -- as much to raise the issue of district costs as to win as seat, she said. She recalled winning about 825 votes of 2,500 cast.

But given the poor economy, the attention the cause has generated and the prolonged petition drive, Mallay is hopeful about dissolution's chances.

"I'm confident if we are able to educate the public we could win, but unfortunately we are dealing with a lot of scare tactics that workers will be thrown out of work and residents [are] not getting the full story," she said.

Mallay called the vote an important watershed for the 2009 state legislation that empowers local residents to dismantle wasteful layers of government. Of 15 votes held so far all have been upstate, and only one, in the village of Altmar about 40 miles north of Syracuse, has brought a dissolution.

Sanitary District 2 is the first test case on Long Island, and the only special district on the chopping block this year.

But Gray said he expects the public to support the district, which he said "provides the highest level of service" to local residents. Dissolution, he said, "would be a disservice" to the community.