Packed into Hempstead's Town Hall this past Monday, local residents left stack upon stack of petitions on the clerk's desk, threatening to spill over onto the floor. Gathered on the clerk's desk were the signatures of 5,000 residents of Sanitary District 2 who are ready for a change. These residents want to get rid of their special taxing district, and for good reason.
Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD) and the Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC) have been assisting local residents in a concentrated effort to dissolve Sanitary District 2, which would turn over to the Town of Hempstead sanitation service for the hamlets of Baldwin, Roosevelt, South Hempstead and parts of Uniondale, Rockville Centre and Freeport. If successful, this would not only be the first successful dissolution of a special district under New York’s new Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, but also the largest effort ever undertaken under the new law.
"Sani 2", as it's known to locals, charges hundreds of extra dollars annually to provide the same sanitation service as neighboring districts. As one of the more than 200 special taxing districts in Nassau County, Sani 2 is a relic of the long past days when Nassau was a patchwork of farming communities, helping give local residents some of the highest property taxes in the state.
While the way the districts operate might be confusing, the ways we can benefit from dissolution is simple. Small districts like Sani 2 are unable to take advantage of "economies of scale": they have to pay more for supplies and materials, and have to have their own set of accounting and management staff. In the private sector, companies would go out business if they were run like this, but in Sani 2, they can always just raise the tax rate to make up the difference. Unfortunately, with no real oversight, the burden on local taxpayers can continue to grow.
Special taxing districts face less oversight than other municipalities, and in Sani 2, it shows. In 2001, the district’s Board of Commissioners used $184,000 in district funds to purchase a building, without first giving a reason for the purchase. This took place while Sani 2 was already saddled with $330,000 in debt.
Even worse, as many of us were struggling to pay our tax bills, in 2003 Sani 2 bureaucrats spent $3,195 of taxpayer money to attend a New Orleans conference. The trip included a $676 tab for dinner at Morton's Steakhouse, a high-end restaurant near the city’s French Quarter. Sheltered from any real public scrutiny, Sani 2 managers enjoyed a good time on the public dime.
With no oversight, no rules governing conflicts of interest or ethics, and an "election" process that leaves most residents in the dark, should Sani 2's troubles come as a surprise? When a district's operations are shrouded in mystery, it not only allows for mismanagement, it puts workers at risk. Witness a recent discrimination lawsuit against Sani 2 management: without the checks and balances that the Town of Hempstead could provide, workers are left with few protections.
In the coming months, the voters of Sanitary District 2 will have to decide whether to create a plan to dissolve their district(a separate vote to approve the plan will come later). When homeowners will save hundreds of dollars a year and workers will see their conditions improve, who would argue against dissolution? Unsurprisingly, the loudest voices against dissolution come from the handful of bureaucrats in charge of Sani 2, who are the only people that won't benefit from the switch. Unfortunately for them, 5,000 residents have already spoken out, and their message is clear: Change starts here, on our blocks, and we're not going to let these bureaucrats stop us.