Editorial: The Long Island dream is unraveling

After Town of Brookhaven plows did not come, After Town of Brookhaven plows did not come, Joel Iturralde, right, rear, and his wife, Anna, and his uncle Ariel Alba, left, clear East Lake Terrace on Tuesday morning in front of their Lake Ronkonkoma home, not plowed once since the blizzard struck. (Feb. 12, 2013) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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The scenes of Long Islanders blowing and shoveling their streets free of the snow trapping them won't be forgotten.

Everything's broken, and everybody's broke. That's how it's begun to feel to Long Islanders, as they take beatings from storm after storm, left powerless after Sandy and helpless in the snow.

Blizzards are not unheard-of in Suffolk County. Well-run and well-funded municipalities should handle them fairly easily. But last week's storm, which hit the area with 30 inches in spots, overwhelmed some highway departments.

Other municipalities had trouble, but Brookhaven and its snowbound residents made national news. Amid ominous forecasts, Town Supervisor Edward Romaine had jetted off to warmer climes. But on this island of fractured power, he doesn't even control the roads in Long Island's largest town. That's the job of the highway superintendent, but because the old one had become a judge and the election for the new one isn't until next month, no one was on the job.

The acting highway superintendent, who got the title because he is a Republican Party committeeman, called in sick for four days during and after the blizzard. He then resigned and returned to his old position that, with overtime, paid him more than $120,000 last year.

Highway superintendents shouldn't be elected, but are in every Suffolk town but Babylon and Islip. Politics has no place in the maintenance of roads, but it plays a role so party officials can reward political workers. It's a sign of what has gone wrong on this Island.

Plowing started too late in Brookhaven and was too sporadic. The town never caught up. Reliable sources say that's partly because of uncertainty over whether overtime would or could be approved. The powers running the town are distracted by internecine battles, and the workforce has been weakened by giving preference to connections over merit.

Snowplow contractors whom the town called on in the past didn't wait, and took their services elsewhere. Days after the storm ended, many streets remained unplowed, and residents were furious.

 

For generations, people came to Nassau and Suffolk counties accepting a hard bargain. They'd pay sky-high property taxes and utility bills. They would endure traffic and a pace that, at times, felt more city than suburb. They would work hard for the lifestyle they desired and the futures they wanted for their kids. The sacrifices would be worth it.

In return they would get safe, superb schools, reliable services, parks and plowed streets. They would enjoy unmatched policing and libraries and arts and beaches and all the things that make up the American dream. It would all be worth it: a high price for a hefty return.

For some, those feelings are fading. Taxes are still sky-high, and property values are only now inching back up after the real estate bubble burst.

As pension contributions will reach 20 percent of payroll for the next several years, the public school districts release dire warnings that they'll have to cut sports or extracurriculars or the arts.

Both counties perch on financial precipices. Nassau is worse off after years of building debt mostly generated by a broken assessment system, but both are barely able to pay current bills and seemingly helpless to confront future ones. Many towns and villages face the same dire straits. Long Beach just imposed a large tax increase, as did Islip, which also had layoffs. Most municipalities are facing financial difficulties.

Staffs are shrinking and services are suffering, but the taxes continue to strangle us, and the most politically protected employees maintain salaries and benefits many residents only dream of.

Some days it seems all that remains is the price tag of living on Long Island, while the perquisites have dissipated.

After the snowstorm, Brookhaven wasn't the only town with problems. In Islip, Supervisor Tom Croci complained of equipment breakdowns. In Smithtown, roads looked like tundra far longer than they should have, and officials cited trucks that were more than 20 years old as one problem.

This on the heels of superstorm Sandy, where the sewage plants were exposed as dangerously deficient and the Long Island Power Authority, with its rates among the highest in the nation, couldn't respond.

 

There is still so much good on Long Island, but prospects are turning sour because the political establishment is running things in a way that benefits itself and its favored employees. We're watching this system become unsustainable, as people flee the region, or dream of doing so.

It doesn't have to be this way, but to fix it, and to make the rewards once again equal the price of being here, change is necessary, and a full-throated, consistent demand for that change from the people is the only way to bring it about.

We've suspected it more and more. But when disaster struck twice and our governments couldn't be relied on to help us through, the hollowing out of the institutions we count on, and of the trade-off of high price for high reward that Long Island was built on, couldn't be ignored.

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