Dawidziak: Some Long Islanders have a chance to consolidate
My property taxes are too damn high!
It's the constant lament of the Long Islander. For years, in every poll my company has done locally, taxes are always the No. 1 issue -- and by a large margin.
The old political joke is that taxes are like the weather. Everybody complains about them but nobody ever does anything. Well, for the first time in a long time, some Long Islanders will have a chance to do something. In two special districts next week, voters will get a say on consolidation.
On Tuesday, voters in Gordon Heights will elect a fire commissioner. Residents of this district pay more than $1,500 per year just for their fire taxes -- three to four times the Suffolk County average. One candidate, Joyce Bourne, is running on a platform to dissolve the district and merge it with a neighboring one. Should this actually happen, Gordon Heights would have the same firefighters, the same building and the same service, but -- according to consolidation proponents -- one-third of its current costs.
The other vote will be held on Wednesday, to abolish Sanitation District 2 in Hempstead. Residents in this private district pay roughly twice as much for their garbage pickup as do residents across the street in the town garbage district.
Most voters blame county and town governments for their high property taxes. But these account for a small fraction of the entire tax bill. There is a staggering number of additional entities with taxing authority on Long Island. Who else has the power to impose taxes? Well, there are the 96 villages. Ah, and of course the 124 school districts; they're the big spenders, accounting for 60 percent to 70 percent of most people's property tax bills.
That's a lot of municipalities, but we're nowhere near done. There are fire districts, library districts, water districts, lighting districts, sewage districts and garbage districts. Add them all up and there are well over 900 entities with taxing authority, according to the Rauch Foundation.
Consolidation is one remedy to skyrocketing taxes. But special districts protecting their individual fiefdoms have naturally been less than supportive. School districts in particular have been resistant to look at measures to reduce costs through shared services.
Until recently, there was little residents could do about it. But this changed with the passage of the New York Citizens Empowerment Act in 2009. The law -- though not yet widely used -- gives taxpayers the ability to initiate consolidation or dissolution votes by gathering signatures through a referendum process. This is truly "power to the people.,"
They say politics makes strange bedfellows, and that's certainly the case here. Fiscally conservative groups like the Center for Cost Effective Government (a think tank founded by former Suffolk Executive Steve Levy, a former client of mine) are working on the same side with more liberal interests such as the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a nonprofit activist group, and its director Lisa Tyson. Both organizations are advocating the dissolution of Sanitation District 2.
Special district elections are held at odd times, when few voters know they're happening -- like the second week of December. If Long Islanders want to take advantage of this chance to lower their tax bills, they're going to have to get educated and go to the polls. In the Gordon Heights Fire District's election last year, Bourne fell short by a single vote.
In such low-turnout elections, it is certainly the case that every vote counts. And if you live in Gordon Heights and Hempstead Sanitation District 2, the effect of your vote next week can be felt where it often counts most -- in your wallet.
Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.