2002-12-14 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Going It Alone
By Stuart Mirsky

By Stuart Mirsky

Going It Alone

All this talk of tax increases, service cuts and a city government that is inefficient in extremis, suggests that we need to start thinking out of the proverbial box if we're going to improve our situation in Rockaway. And what could be more "out of the box" than the idea proposed in the past by John Baxter, Rockaway's local curmudgeon par excellence and leader of its Independence Party, that we ought to just secede from New York City and start over?
  It seems that John stumbled on some rather interesting information about a year or so back: in 1915, Rockaway was actually designated as an independent municipality by the State Legislature. Although the actual steps involved in creating the new city were never taken, the law setting all this up seems never to have been formally rescinded. An opportunity here?

Given the current hullabaloo about budget deficits for New York City and the mayor's emphasis on addressing this by raising property taxes (a big deal out here in Rockaway where there is a growing body of homeowners), what better way to send a message to City Hall than to demonstrate that we are seriously looking at other options? Who says, after all, that Rockaway can only achieve economic and political viability as part of a larger city, one that not only has a history of ignoring us but can't even seem to keep its own house in order?
  There are implications in exploring this route, of course. Most notably the fact that an independent Rockaway would have to take over paying for and running all those services we currently get from City Hall. Could we fund our own local services on the thin tax base represented by the folks living out here alone? Well, that depends on whether we're getting more back now from City Hall, or less, relative to what we pay in. Given the low level of services we often see out here and the general inattention to Rockaway's needs, it's probably a good bet that we get less back than we actually pay for with our taxes . . . and this is before the planned property tax (and other) increases!

Of course, funding our own municipal services could actually be more costly since we'd have to replicate an administrative structure now covered by the existing citywide one. But some folks might argue that the citywide structure is so bloated we'd actually save money by funding our own, scale-appropriate administration right here on the peninsula. These things would all have to be looked at as part of a feasibility review.

Still another issue would be affiliation. A township has to be part of a county. We're now part of Queens County, which is wholly enrolled in New York City's municipal structure. But if we left New York City, we'd no longer be able to remain part of Queens. Since we're probably too small to be our own county, the only other alternative would be alignment with nearby Nassau. Now that's a radical thought. We'd be Long Islanders rather than New Yorkers. Of course, Nassau has one of the highest tax rates in the country so this doesn't sound all that tempting, especially given their property taxes! On the other hand, Nassau is famous for the higher level of services it provides its residents while New York's tax rates look like they're on the upswing anyway.

Moreover, there's room for creativity here. If this were to be viable, a City of Rockaway would have to be attractive enough to its citizenry, the future taxpayers of the new municipality, so taxes would either have to be lower than we now pay to New York City or, at the least, the ratio of return to pay-out would need to be significantly better. We'd need our own Departments of Sanitation, Parks, Health, Schools, etc. And all of this costs money. How do you do it without unduly dunning your tax base? Well, Rockaway does have one thing most other parts of the city lack: its beach, a highly underutilized resource, though this was not always so. As many never tire of pointing out, at the turn of the century Rockaway was a classy resort. Not anymore, of course, with the advent of improved travel capabilities.

But, what if we also had a theme park and if that park had a real historic aspect to it? Does Rockaway have a history? I submit that we do: the turn of the century beach culture that was Rockaway in its heyday . . . a time when Coney Island was king and Rockaway was the exclusive preserve of the classier elements of society! So why not build a theme park around a restoration of that ambiance, the turn of the century beach world that was Rockaway? Within that, we could also have various sub-themes including a restoration of a mid-eighteenth century "old town", a "Rockaway" Indian village and a pirate's cove (since it's rumored that Captain Kidd himself used our beaches as a landing base and even hid some of his treasure here). We may not have whaling ships and a sea-going culture, like Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, or an arts colony like Provincetown, but we have our own little history, waiting to be developed.

How does this contribute toward a City of Rockaway? Simple. It helps make us financially independent. We could look at restoring Rockaway's dream of township by combining it with a plan to build a visitor's center and theme park, somewhere on the peninsula, to be financed through joint government-private development. But, and here's the key, the government would be a Rockaway-only government. Financially, it could be structured in three parts: one third for a small group of high-rolling private investors, one third for any Rockaway residents willing to buy shares, and one third set aside for Rockaway's new municipality, in trust for all its citizens. The two thirds of privately held shares could eventually be traded on one of the stock exchanges, enabling value to be recognized in the marketplace, while one third of all profits would always accrue to the municipality to fund services on the peninsula.
  There would still be a need for a tax base, but it would hopefully be less onerous than might otherwise be the case. And we'd gain a free hand with our own resources, to develop and use them as we see fit. The resulting boom, which would occur because of Rockaway's restoration, would increase the value of shares in the enterprise while fueling overall improvement on the peninsula.
  This wouldn't solve all the problems, of course, but it gives us a chance to make our own decisions and stop living off the largesse of a distant and often distracted City Hall. At the least, a serious effort to look at this option can't help but send a  message to the current political powers-that-be and might even get them to re-examine what they have to offer us . . . and, perhaps, try a little harder! It's worth a serious look and I, for one, think a Mayor John Baxter might not be the worst thing that could happen to this community. On the other hand, I'm betting he'd have plenty of competition.

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