For all appearances, Long Island is a beautiful place to live, yet if you scrape the surface, you’ll find some rather disturbing things.  Perhaps not a severed finger, but you will find that the island’s drinking water, that one must drink to sustain life, is some of the most polluted in the nation.  What appear to be beautiful bay and ocean beaches that surround the island, and the island is somewhat famous for, are also polluted; and the government that is vested with protecting the public from things like this occurring, is so fragmented, transitory, and politically moribund as to be ineffective in its role as environmental steward.

Robert Lange, Commissioner

January 27, 2023

9 Min Read
Montauk Long Island
4098tnt / Alamy Stock Photo

An apt metaphor for Long Island is captured in the opening scene of David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet.  For those not familiar with the film, it opens with a bucolic suburban scene of trees and grass which changes abruptly as the protagonist, walks through a park, sits down on a park bench, and looks down and notices something in the grass.  What he finds to his evident shock is a severed finger.  

For all appearances, Long Island is a beautiful place to live, yet if you scrape the surface, you’ll find some rather disturbing things. Perhaps not a severed finger, but you will find that the island’s drinking water, that one must drink to sustain life, is some of the most polluted in the nation.  What appear to be beautiful bay and ocean beaches that surround the island, and the island is somewhat famous for, are also polluted; and the government that is vested with protecting the public from things like this occurring, is so fragmented, transitory, and politically moribund as to be ineffective in its role as environmental steward.  

This may come as a shock to many who pay what they consider extraordinarily high property taxes, but the reason for high taxes on Long Island is quite simple, and the main reason why government is so dysfunctional, and that is the fact that Long Island is the capital of governmental redundancy.  The extraordinarily high taxes most Long Island homeowners pay is directly baked into this multilevel governmental cake. Long Island taxpayers also suffer from the general lack of commercial development to help offset homeowners’ taxes, something which preserves lower property taxes for homeowners in NYC. 

Concomitant with a general redundancy of services is a disproportion salary structure given the level of responsibility held by the salary holders. A simple side-to-side comparison of governmental salaries on Long Island to those of the members of NYC’s government will demonstrate the salary inflation on Long Island. For example, a Long Island village administrator whose salary for overseeing a small one square mile village exceeding that of a NYC administrator whose responsibilities cover the five boroughs of the city.  Individual Long Island police department heads whose salaries and benefits exceed that of the Police Commissioner of NYC.   

Unlike many other communities in NYS and the rest of the US, Long Island has multiple jurisdictional levels of government, where in another location a single governmental structure would be more than sufficient. 

Nassau County suffering from this fragmentation perhaps more than any other part of Long Island. In Nassau County - in addition to Nassau County and various Town governments within the county - there are at least three dozen “incorporated villages” and “special districts”. An incorporated village, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the early 19th century’s answer to a gated community; but in this case without a physical gate and instead a self-governing community sheltered from the possible intrusion from the surrounding communities and other governmental powers by its self-governing jurisdictional power.  

Are there historical class and racist overtones behind the impetus to form such incorporated villages, no doubt, but for now it is important to just point out the gross inefficiency of this type of governance and its unsustainability in a complex modern world.  Special districts on the other hand, while similar in their creation in further fragmenting governmental power, are usually justified as needed to provide specialized services to a particular local community. Some examples of special districts are water and garbage districts. For an amusing take on the nature of special districts I suggest Googling Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on special districts.  

One of the major arguments for forming an incorporated village or special district is the idea of maintaining local control.  But one should ask as a resident, who exactly is in control, and to what degree are your needs as a resident being met by the local government?  Incorporated villages and special districts all come with a nominal head of the organization, a mayor for an incorporated village and one or more commissioners for a special district, all of whom are elected to their positions. However, unlike the timing of County and Town elections, which take place in November, village and special district elections take place at times of the year least familiar to the voting public, thereby discouraging widespread voter turnout; and thereby resulting in a somewhat insular and incestuous pool of possible candidates. 

If in fact, the desire was for widespread voter turnout and therefore true local representation, then the local elections would be scheduled to coincide with Election Day.  The fact that many residents of Long Island work outside of Long Island and must spend hours each day commuting back and forth to work, further contributes to a lack of awareness and participation in local politics by residents.  

Another important question to ask is, from what pool of possible candidates do these individuals typically come from and what are their qualifications for the jobs? With very few exceptions the candidates are usually members of the local community and that is usually the strongest argument for their qualifications.  Local attorneys and local business members making up a major portion of those running for mayor of a village or commissioner(s) of a special district. While being a mayor may require no special expertise other than being a well-recognized member of the community and possessing a friendly disposition, operating a special district’s specialized services does require some expertise.  

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked for NYC government for almost 30 years and then in retirement to have operated a local solid waste management authority on Long Island for 3 and a half years.  That experience has highlighted for me the weaknesses inherent in Long Island’s multilevel governmental structure.  While NYC’s centralized governmental structure is no panacea, when comparing it with what one finds on Long Island it illustrates why it is so difficult for the island to make any progress with developing the infrastructure needed to sustain its communities. 

Long Island is an island of governments - a Russian doll of government within governments. A host of individual fiefdoms that accept responsibility only for their small portion of the whole and fight vigorously against any effort to impose shared responsibility upon their small community.  A circumstance which is perplexing to individual members of Long Island’s communities when they attempt to discover who is responsible for a particular service in their area, and find out as a result that the county, town, incorporated village, or special district may in fact be responsible.  A fact that is rarely transparent to a resident until a problem arises, and then it may require some serious detective work to arrive at an adequate resolution. The ruling caste of Long Island governments have gone beyond not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) when it comes to the necessary infrastructure to sustain a community, to embrace a build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anyone (BANANA).  Yet, at the same time many of the same elected officials will profess their desire to see something happen that will alleviate the impending critical shortage of the needed infrastructure.  

I recently attended a symposium at Stony Brook University where the topic of focus was upon Long Island’s Waste Management and Recycling Issues. A pressing topic because of Long Island’s limited remaining capacity for sustainably dealing with its solid waste, or in simple English, garbage or trash disposal and recycling.  Long Island’s challenges are great, both geographically and again politically, when it comes to sustainable waste management.  As the equivalent of a geographical cul-de-sac, Long Island has only two limited choices when it comes to waste management, deal with its waste and recycling in-house – within its borders – or ship its waste and recycling off island. 

In the past, before the days of recycling as a municipal service, Long Island had a few landfills which were used by local government to both dispose of its own and other parts of the island’s trash; and used as well as a revenue center to offset higher local taxes.  Many of these were no better than a dump with little or no environmental controls in place, and typically operated by Town or Village employees with little or no qualifications for performing these tasks.  For several reasons, including new stricter federal and state environment regulations implemented in the 1980’s and exponential development prioritizing residential housing over any other type of development, such as including the infrastructure needed to sustain that new housing, most of those landfills are now closed.  Brookhaven having one of the few remaining operating landfills, but which is also scheduled to close within a few years. 

What remains of Long Island’s waste management infrastructure are a few incinerators, which in operation reduce the volume of trash once incinerated of what must be disposed of but result in an ash byproduct that must also find a final home.  In essence, Long Island’s infrastructure for handling its residents and businesses waste is less than adequate at present and dwindling further each day as we approach closure dates for some of its remaining public solid waste management facilities.

At this same symposium, a town supervisor stood up close to the end of the symposium in frustration and asked, “when is the State, through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, going to do something about the current lack of adequate solid waste management infrastructure on Long Island?”  A question which demonstrates both the naiveté of those in governmental power on Long Island as to what really stands in the way of implementing change and the monumental task ahead to bring about change while Long Island’s governance remains so fragmented.  The last thing any elected official on Long Island would embrace is the State in any form imposing upon a local community a regional plan that would force its participation.  Almost 35 years since the State of New York passed the Solid Waste Management Act, many Long Island communities have yet to submit a solid waste management plan, as required by the 1988 Act.  And for many that have submitted something, it is in essence and substance no more than a creative writing exercise, with little or no follow through. So, the fault lies not in the State, but rather in the many hands of local government.

 

Robert Lange was the Director of NYC’s Recycling Program before retiring in 2016, and then the Executive Director/Commissioner of North Hempstead’s Solid Waste Management Authority from 2016 to 2019.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lange

Commissioner, Solid Waste Management Authority, North Hempstead, L.I.

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City's recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. Prior to leaving city service, Lange was responsible for the Office of Beneficial Reuse Planning, Infrastructure Development & Management, within the Bureau of Solid Waste Management of the New York City Department of Sanitation. He recently accepted a position as the Commissioner of a Solid Waste Authority on Long Island. 

 

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