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Nassau Residents Grow Weary Over Special Taxing 'Sanitary Districts'

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- They collect more than your garbage. Sanitary districts also collect taxes, manage multi-million dollar budgets and dole out jobs.

As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reports, the elections are usually uncontested with pitifully low turnout, and now some residents want to throw away these special taxing districts on Long Island.

In the dead of summer it's election day with only one candidate for sanitation commissioner on the ballot. Out of 55,000 residents, only a scant 148 showed up to vote.

"I didn't know how to vote, I would have voted," one woman said.

"Wasn't informed that there was an election going on," another woman said.

Laura Mallay from Residents for Efficient Special Districts doesn't think the problem with voters is apathy.

"I think it's that they don't know," she tells CBS2. "And I think the districts do what they can to make sure those in power stay in power."

Mallay thinks sanitary districts should be disposed of.

The layer of government carved out nearly a century ago collect both taxes and trash, but are rife with patronage and sloppy with taxpayer money, she claims.

The Town of Hempstead oversees its five special districts, but review, say critics, is rubber stamped.

"Many people don't even know what sanitation district they live in, and they just expect that we're all paying the same and we are all being treated fairly and money is being spent correctly," Mallay said. "It's being wasted."

In Suffolk County, garbage is picked up by town governments. But Nassau has what's been dubbed a crazy patchwork quilt of sanitary districts.

"They want the local service," Sanitary District 1 Superintendent George Pappas said. "They want the access."

Local control, claim the commissioners, is better.

"It's really local government at its best," Sanitary District 1 Chairman James Vilardi said. "Someone can knock on my door and talk to me about a problem they are having."

Sanitary District 2 resident Donna Casazza is taxed $1,000 per year for garbage pickup. A comparable home with Town of Hempstead pick up pays hundreds less.

She says she doesn't think local control matters much with the respect to garbage pickup.

Millions of dollars collected with little oversight, a decade ago a series of scathing audits found lavish dinners and travel, mismanagement, no bid contracts, excessive fringe benefits, even health insurance paid for a worker who was dead.

"There has not been one dime of taxpayer money spend on any kind of trip, no dinners, nothing, zero," Vilardi tells CBS2.

Commissioners say they've changed the culture, hiring an inspector general.

"We're auditing ourselves," Vilardi said.

Candidates for the next Nassau County Executive say the fate of special districts is up to the residents who live there.

"There have been abuses in the past, we know there were abuses in the past, those abuses have to stop. The taxpayers have to know that they're getting the best service for the lowest price," County Executive candidate Jack Martins said.

"They continue to provide a high level of service in most cases to the communities," candidate George Maragos said.

"If they don't like them they can hold these districts accountable through voting," candidate Laura Curran said.

Making matters more difficult, voting takes place on all different days -- not one of them on election day.

Calls for a master plan of reform more than  decade ago have gone nowhere. Residents still pushing for change say they're in it for the long haul.

CBS2 reported that under New York State law, residents can vote to dissolve a special district -- but never have.

A spokesman for the Town of Hempstead told CBS2; "We strongly support the will of the residents."

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