Opinion: Long Island's 665 service providers are way too many

"Long Island's patchwork of government agencies, special districts and incorporated villages is ripe for rethinking," write Ann Golob and Steven Romalewski. Photo Credit: Martin Kozlowski

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As rising government costs raise new questions about the need for increasing efficiencies, Long Island's patchwork of government agencies, special districts and incorporated villages is ripe for rethinking. With elections being held across Long Island tomorrow for leaders of 158 of Long Island's 168 commissioner-led special districts, now is a good time to reconsider that patchwork -- and its implications for taxpayers. Over 80 percent of households on Long Island are in districts with elections on Tuesday.

It's often said that no one knows how many service providers exist on Long Island. Well, after two years of work on behalf of the Long Island Index, a project of the Rauch Foundation, we can tell you: 665. Nassau County has 70 service providers for fire, 62 for garbage, 56 for schools, 54 for libraries, 40 for water, 22 for police and 18 for sewer services. Suffolk County has 130 for fire, 68 for schools, 56 for libraries, 27 for ambulances, 21 for garbage, 19 for police, 14 for water and eight for sewers.

About a third of these providers are entities of the state, county, town or incorporated village. The rest -- 471 agencies -- include school districts, library districts and commissioner-led special districts. Consider what that means: There are 471 individual entities -- with their own governing boards, budgets and meeting schedules -- and taxpayers are paying for all of them, without benefiting from efficiencies of scale.

This arcane patchwork evolved over time to meet the growing demands of Long Islanders as they moved out of cities and into unincorporated areas, beginning in the early 1900s. Its evolution took different forms, with different types of providers springing up to offer various services to pockets of new residents.

There's no question that the services provided by the 168 commissioner-led special districts are vital and that the commissioners and staff give generously of their time. But it is also true that there is enormous inefficiency, paid for by taxpayers, as well as an absence of transparency.

As we discovered in our two-year search, many special districts were unable to provide maps of their catchment areas and could not define their boundaries for us. It was hard to find out their current spending and projected budgets. It was hard to determine how many people had voted in recent elections, since special districts do not have to report their results to the county Board of Elections. It was even hard to find out the polling places for the elections are being held this week.

Many times when we called districts for information, we were treated with suspicion -- even if we lived in the district! Only through an extensive analysis of tax records were we finally able to chart out the service providers of every home on Long Island.

The results of our mapping are now available, clarifying for the first time precisely who is served by which providers. The Long Island Index has recently unveiled an interactive map of special districts that enables users to search by street address or village to determine which districts provide services to their homes. The map, developed in collaboration with the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY, is available at www.longislandindexmaps.org.

That additional clarity exposes -- but does not reduce -- the enormous inefficiencies inherent in having not only 168 special districts but 665 government agencies in all, providing just seven types of services across two counties.

Long Islanders are well known for believing that their taxes are too high. Increasing government efficiency is a way to address that problem. Voting tomorrow is one way to let elected officials know that you're interested in what they're doing.


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