If case succeeds, district mergers might catch on

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Residents who oppose the Baldwin-based Sanitary District 2 Residents who oppose the Baldwin-based Sanitary District 2 in Hempstead Town are submitting today to Hempstead Town more than 5,000 signatures on a petition to start the process to dissolve the district. Photo Credit: Handout

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

One of Long Island's best-known elected officials made a relevant if less-than-shocking prediction five years ago during an off-the-record conversation.

Efforts to combine special taxing districts to save money would continue to fail -- until fiscal conditions in the region became sufficiently bleak. Only then, the pol said, would the incentive arise for the savings such consolidations would offer.

Two years later, in 2009, with a serious economic crisis under way, Gov. David A. Paterson signed a law pushed by then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, aimed at making it easier to cut or merge New York's multiple layers of government.

Now, results may be starting to take shape.

On Monday, residents of Hempstead Town and members of the Long Island Progressive Coalition crowded into a corner of the town attorney's offices on Washington Street to deliver petition books bearing what they estimated to be more than 5,000 signatures aimed at a referendum on dismantling Sanitary District No. 2.

If the move works, said the ad hoc Residents for Efficient Special Districts, it would mark a first success of its kind in New York. A referendum to dissolve the district, and a resulting transfer of garbage disposal duties to the town, "is predicted to save residents of the sanitary districts hundreds of dollars a year," RESD said in a statement. The district, of course, disputes that.

Change, if it comes, would still take time, as some Suffolk residents know.

Wrestling continues over the years-old question of whether to keep the relatively small, reportedly high-cost Gordon Heights Fire District, or to abolish it as some residents wish.

Paul Sabatino, a lawyer representing those who want to disband this district, said a petition is still pending before the Town of Brookhaven. Alternatives are under discussion about ambulance coverage. Overall, he says, the 2009 law did provide "a much more simplified process that made it much easier to get to this stage."

There are, again, scattered glimmers. Last year, a merger was carried out between two small fire districts on Fire Island: Lonelyville and Fair Harbor.

Ex-Suffolk Executive Steve Levy seeks to consult those looking to merge special districts. Having established the fledgling Center for Cost Effective Government, offering technical and legal help for such efforts, Levy talks up the chances of consolidation catching on.

"I think once there is a single success under our belts, it's going to mushroom, it's going to take off like wildfire," Levy said Monday. "In the past, activists have believed that it's a futile effort.

"We put out a mass mailing last week, and we're waiting for responses to come in from 160 chambers and civics throughout Long Island," Levy said. "Everybody has talked about consolidation being a solution, but there hasn't really been the entity to help it materialize."

Partisan clashes over whose patronage disappears with a dissolution can come into play. But Howard Weitzman, a Democrat who in his tenure as Nassau comptroller through 2009 issued critical audit reports on the sanitary districts -- including Hempstead's District 2 -- said Tuesday: "When people wanted to cut their taxes, I didn't think that was partisan. Democrats and Republicans can agree that if you can cut taxes and maintain service, you should do it."

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