Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/30/06)


Time to end the Balkanization of Westchester County? With an area of 450.5 square miles, Westchester follows a governmental plan adopted in 1788. The county now boasts six cities, 16 towns (down from an original 20) containing 23 incorporated villages plus some 93 unincorporated hamlets, such as Chappaqua, Scarborough or Montrose. To complicate the picture, two villages, Mount Kisco and Scarsdale, also are towns. In the southern part of Westchester, cities and villages are so cheek-by-jowl that motorists can pass from one community to another unaware of the change in political geography unless they get a citation for a traffic violation. Residents of villages also have the unenviable privilege of paying taxes to three levels of government: county, town and village. In some, sewer taxes have been added to the mix disguised as "usage fees," enabling the village administration to tout this fast shuffle as a reduction in taxes.

Each unit in this bewildering array of cities, towns, villages and hamlets also may have its own zoning ordinances, planning boards and zoning boards of appeal, creating a veritable crazy quilt of contrasting legislation. Differences in interpretation and application vary so widely they can have a significant impact on businesses wishing to establish themselves in Westchester. Also within Westchester are 40 separate school districts, 58 separate community fire departments, and 39 separate public libraries under community or local library association control. The sheer redundancy of staff, equipment and facilities is staggering. One can only wonder how many taxpayers' dollars could be saved if these separate entities were consolidated or even if they merely pooled their buying. Imagine the economies of scale that would result from combined purchases of everything from school books and library books to school buses, garbage trucks and fire engines.

A bad bargain. The cost of the war in Iraq is rapidly approaching $600 billion, threatening such domestic priorities as the expansion of Medicare prescription drug coverage, and making it more costly than the longer Vietnam War, which cost $536 billion in today's dollars.

Show me the money. An urban legend now making the rounds claims that next year the IRS will refund excise taxes on telephone calls collected by telephone companies. Most urban legends turn out to be untrue. But, wonder of wonders, this one happens to be absolutely right on the money. For years, telephone companies collected excise taxes on long-distance calls, based on distance and time spent talking. When flat-fee service was introduced, consumer groups sued to stop the practice. After a series of court battles, the IRS agreed to stop collecting this tax. The IRS now will refund or credit businesses, nonprofit groups and individual taxpayers for the excise taxes on long-distance calls added to their telephone bills during the period between Feb. 28, 2003, and July 31, 2006.

The refund procedure is simple: You may claim credit on Line 71 of Form 1040 or on Short Form 1040A for a standard refund ranging from $30 for single persons to $60 if there are four or more dependents in your household. If you have all you phone bills for the 41-month period, you may elect to total the taxes paid and attach Form 8913 to your return. Persons who are not required to submit an income tax return can use Form 1040EZ-T to apply for the standard refund or attach Form 8913 to Form 1040EZ-T if you have your telephone bills and calculate the amount to be refunded. The Treasury Department estimates that about $10 billion will be returned to individuals. Interestingly, when this column pointed out in February of this year that Croton had been short-changing seniors over the years by miscalculating their tax exemptions, Croton officials claimed that they were prevented from offering seniors refunds or credits against future taxes.

Washington fine tunes the definition of hunger. In the fall of each year the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a report that measures Americans' access to food. The report has consistently used the word "hungry" to describe those who cannot put food on the table. But not any longer. The Agriculture Department's new thinking reflected in this year's report is that "hungry" is a word to be shunned. The 35 million Americans who weren't sure last year where their next meal was coming from were merely suffering from "low food security." People who are worse off and sometimes had no food at all were labeled as having "very low food security."

This year's report had failed to appear in October, as usual. Instead, release was delayed until after the election. Could the reason have been the report's bad news that the number of hungry Americans who are starving in the midst of plenty has risen over the first five years of the Bush administration?

When is a civil war not a civil war? Answer: When the administration says so. According to the White House, the upsurge in sectarian killings in Iraq is merely "a new phase." It's a new phase, all right--a new phase in the administration's continuing denial of reality. It was so impossible to guarantee President Bush's safety in a proposed visit to Baghdad this week that a scheduled meeting with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to be arranged in neighboring Jordan. The two words that have not been heard in all the talk about America's intentions for Iraq and the Middle East are "statecraft" and "negotiations." After fighting an Irish nationalist insurgency in Northern Ireland since the 1920s, Britain finally woke to the fact that meeting and talking with opposition groups could induce the I.R.A. to disarm and start down the road to peace.

Instead of being a statesman and leader in seeking a solution, Mr. Bush has been little more than a cheerleader, talking up "victory" without ever defining how we will recognize it when it happens. Let's face it, Iraq can never be put back together as it was before our invasion. After World War I, the region known as Mesopotamia was created as a nation despite the bitter animosities and frictions between its religious and ethnic groups--Shia, Sunni and Kurds. The only person who was ever able to control these unruly groups now sits in a cell in Baghdad under sentence of death by hanging.

President Bush, the Pentagon and Sen. John McCain are all talking about committing 20,000 more troops to Iraq, straining the already thinly stretched American military even more. The White House has never revealed what measure will be used to determine when the long-sought but elusive victory has been achieved. Yet we are being asked to continue sacrificing additional American lives because of the administration's failure to provide enough troops initially to guarantee the postwar stability of Iraq.

The White House argues that if we leave now, a full-fledged civil war will break out. Yet if we stay another six months and then decide to leave, a full-fledged civil war will still break out. Forget about the dollar cost of staying longer. In the past six months, a total of 416 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq. Will we sacrifice another 416 American soldiers to make up for our botched occupation and lack of planning? That means, too, another 416 graveside ceremonies ending with grieving parents or spouses presented with 416 carefully folded flags with Purple Heart medals pinned to them. As sportswriter Jimmy Cannon would say, betting another 416 American lives in a war that Henry Kissinger has already pronounced unwinnable is a sucker bet whose payoff can only be 416 even more bitter and vocal Cindy Sheehans.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?