The recent political chatter about “Obamacare” before the Supreme Court of the United States got a great deal of media attention. President Obama added fuel to the fire when he declared, “Ultimately, I am confident the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
For someone who was a law professor those words were absurd. Even if a bill passed unanimously in the house and senate, it could still be overturned – if the law was in violation of the Constitution.
Giving up is not “reform.” County Executive Ed Mangano’s proposal to transfer property assessment from the county to the towns might possibly speed up assessment decisions by replacing one large and overwhelmed bureaucracy with several somewhat smaller ones. It will likely recreate problems that were major motivations in creating our highly centralized county government 75 years ago.
The 1938 county charter merged the town Boards of Assessors and the County Board of Equalization, ending three decades of complaints, lawsuits and hard feelings about the lack of specific, uniform levels of property assessments between the towns. In a tax system screaming out for simplification, clarification and a sense of certainty, spinning off assessments to the towns will reintroduce “equalization” as an annual issue. Tens of thousands of residents are still trying to figure out why their assessment went down but their tax bill still went up. The division of taxes heading up the tax food chain in an equitable manner is the most complex subject in local government, and it’s all going to make people very sad, particularly in villages and school districts that are split between townships.
Manhattan District Attorney (D.A.) Robert Morgenthau was facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from a former judge in 2005, but his opponent had trouble finding anything substantively negative to say about Morgenthau.
The reason I know this: a city-based tabloid newspaper reporter called me weeks before the election, asking whether it was legal to have a Manhattan driver’s license while at the same time registering and insuring a car in Dutchess County, where auto insurance premiums are much lower. The answer: yes, so long as the insured vehicle is primarily garaged in Dutchess County. I was the director of public affairs for the New York State Insurance Department at the time and knew immediately the question pertained to Morgenthau because he met those criteria.
Friday, 07 December 2012 00:00
In the 1950s and 1960s, Nassau County local governments built a formidable Civil Defense (CD) complex designed to keep residents safe and alive in case of catastrophe. That CD system is gone, although bits and pieces are still with us today. Our auxiliary police units are vestiges of CD. First set up during the Second World War and revived during the Korean War, the “auxies” weren’t formally folded into the Nassau County Police Department until three decades ago. In 1965, the Levittown Public Schools contracted with the local unit to keep order during special events, and slowly the auxiliaries came to be thought of as “anti-crime” units.
The WWII civil defense system had been almost completely dismantled when the Soviet Union’s acquisition of atomic technology in 1949 jump-started the creation of CD systems at all levels of government. In less than a year, Nassau County had a working emergency headquarters, a series of air raid warning stations, a Civilian Air Patrol of volunteer pilots and detailed plans for police, fire, health, public works, transportation and other services for every village and unincorporated area.
The structure and strategy of the CD operation changed several times over the years, through constant experimentation and readjustment when tests didn’t go right. The siren alert system—a solid blast for alert and a warble for all-clear— was adopted in 1952 after tests using giant firecrackers fired off in what is now Eisenhower Park couldn’t be heard well enough.
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel (Category 4) was threatening to be the first October storm in 55 years to land west of New York City, at high tide, and there was potential for massive damage and flooding on Long Island. Nassau County had worked out a partnership with the Nassau Red Cross in case of natural disaster and the emergency network was placed on alert. Before the storm hit, 18 emergency shelters in schools and large churches were all ready to handle evacuees from any flooded coastal areas. Residents could call an emergency phone bank for details on planning and evacuation. In comparison, the federal government didn’t fold natural disaster response into its civil defense programs until 1970.
The thinking was that in case of an actual attack, all federal resources would be dedicated to fighting the enemy, so state and local governments had to step up and assume responsibility for the civilian population.
Nassau County’s CD system had as many as 49 full-time employees and coordinated 62 separate town, city and village CD programs. Each town had a Civil Defense Director who in turn coordinated zone commanders, wardens and “Block Mothers.” Volunteers were given written tests and special training. Over 50,000 residents were issued CD classifications and assigned specific destinations in case of catastrophe, including physicians, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and all kinds of administrators. Teachers were classified and were to report to their school districts for relief work if the code went out.
Nassau was the first county in the country to formally test, classify and assign CD volunteers for simulated nuclear attack drills (“Operation Alert”). During these drills, residents were encouraged to go to shelters for practice, state police closed the parkways, county police closed county roads and even the LIRR lowered its gates to stop traffic.
In 1961, the Kennedy Administration shifted CD focus from survival of a direct nuclear blast to survival of resulting fallout. As late as 1974, Nassau maintained 690 fallout shelters in the basements of public buildings, schools and shopping centers that had toilets and were fully stocked with water, medical supplies and a two-week food supply. Unfortunately, that was only enough space for one-third of the county population. Six hundred eighty-five other designated shelters were just empty rooms. The promise and the reality weren’t matching up. With a recession, property tax crises and retrenchment of many state and local programs, Civil Defense was increasingly seen as a boondoggle.
The federal government consolidated emergency programs under FEMA during the Carter and Reagan Administrations, and our local governments replaced CD with significantly scaled down “emergency management” plans.
Nassau County never got CD completely right, but parts of that system can be rethought and reapplied using today’s technologies and efficiencies. And we should.