Getting at the source of police power
Long Island activists are moving to a new phase in their police reform efforts: focusing attention on the power of law enforcement unions.
Dozens of local groups plan an in-person and digital news conference in front of State Sen. Todd Kaminsky’s Rockville Centre office on Thursday “demanding that the Six Democratic Long Island Senators reinvest their campaign contributions from police unions into local bail funds and organizations fighting police brutality,” according to a news release. It goes on to say that “police unions and associations have historically wielded enormous power and blocked systemic changes to policing in the New York State Legislature.”
—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano
About that “rainy day” fund…
Voters have been casting ballots in record numbers on their school budgets, but the process is a bit untethered to the reality of education funding.
The state is juggling a $13 billion COVID-19-caused deficit and there is much uncertainty about the federal government providing help. That means the districts are juggling the uncertainty of state funding.
If the state does not come through, the districts that have been breaking the law on amassing large fund balances and reserves are going to fare far better than those that have complied.
State law sets a limit on unrestricted fund balances of 4% of a district’s annual budget. It also bars overfunding restricted reserve funds like those set aside for capital improvements, sometimes done in “anticipation” of expenses that never materialize. The practice lets districts sock away more money than allowed, which districts use as a security blanket against future needs.
But state law does not allow districts to be penalized for such sandbagging, so in the decade from 2008 to 2018 rainy day cash in Long Island districts grew from $1.33 billion to $2.44 billion, a jump of 80%.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli audits the districts and reports when they’ve put aside too much, but his office can’t do anything about it. And he says the issue is not necessarily the fact that more than 4% is excessive.
“The limit actually used to be 2%,” DiNapoli told The Point last week, “and you can argue, particularly in times of huge budgetary stress, that the allowable fund balance should be even larger. The real issue is honesty. When you have a district that piles up more and more money each year, it generally does so by spending less than it claimed it would, year after year, or understating revenues. That’s not being honest with the taxpayers.”
Some of the districts DiNapoli has identified for having socked away the cash over the past few years include Mount Sinai, Jericho, Levittown, Montauk, South Huntington, Elmont and Sagaponack.
But this year, cuts in state aid to schools of as much as 20% are on the table and wealthier districts could see their state money cut by far more to keep cuts to poorer districts smaller. So now DiNapoli’s concern is seeing that districts have more flexibility in how they spend restricted reserve funds on operating expenses related to the pandemic (as long as it is repaid within five years, with interest), and has introduced a bill, passed by the State Legislature and under consideration by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to grant that flexibility.
And now the wildest of wild cards is being dealt: Two million voters, many of whom have never bothered to vote in a school board election in their lives, were mailed ballots by the state, and district leaders say the turnout looks to be beyond anything ever seen before.
So what do those voters think of their districts’ budget practices? Let the tallying continue.
—Lane Filler @lanefiller
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LIEVF backs Gershon, throws shade at Fleming
The hot Democratic primary in CD1 got a little hotter with the release of endorsements from the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum.
The nonprofit is once again backing Perry Gershon to take on Rep. Lee Zeldin, saying in a news release that his answers to the group’s questionnaire were “markedly superior” to his fellow contenders. But the LIEVF also threw some shade at Gershon’s foes.
Executive director David Reisfield told The Point that the group considers Suffolk Legis. Bridget Fleming “a convenient environmentalist” with an inconsistent voting record. Fleming contacted the Point to say that her environmental record is substantial and that the remarks of the group were unfair, unfounded and a "mischaracterization." The LIEVF also criticized friends and family of Stony Brook scientist Nancy Goroff for funding negative ads against Gershon, what it called “baseless attacks” that misrepresent Gershon’s commitment to protecting the environment. It wants Goroff to denounce the attacks.
The LIEVF, which does not accept donations from any candidates, is chaired by Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Dick Amper. Environmental attorney Jennifer Juengst is vice chair.
Other endorsements in the June 23 Democratic primaries were less prickly. The group backed former Babylon Town Councilwoman Jackie Gordon for the open CD2 seat, Rep. Tom Suozzi in CD3, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright for the State Senate seat being vacated by Republican Ken LaValle, and former Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith for the Assembly seat being vacated by Republican Anthony Palumbo, who is seeking to succeed LaValle.
No word on who, if anyone, the LIEVF will back in CD1 if Gershon loses the primary.
Editor's note: This post was updated to add Bridget Fleming’s reaction.
—Michael Dobie @mwdobie