My Most Recent LIBN Column: Clusters Can Create Jobs if Zoning Will Get Out of the Way…

Long Island can lead the way as America strives to compete.  The past few weeks have seen significant movement that can benefit our intellectual institutions and has the potential to spur massive economic growth. Last week Senator Schumer joined with leaders from Stony BrookUniversity, Cold Spring Harbor Labs and BNL to push for a regional innovation cluster.  This week Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko continued the call when he announced Accelerate LI at his State of the Town.  And President Obama stressed the need to invest in technology and education in the State of the Union.

Schumer and Lesko are smart to push a regional innovation cluster for Long Island because that’s exactly the direction of federal policy. Originally an idea that was born out of Harvard Business School, theAdministration and Congress has funded various new programs promoting clusters through the Departments of Commerce and Energy. And more recently, Congress passed the COMPETES Act, which created a new federal cluster program aimed at efforts like those being spearhead on Long Island. These new programs put a premium on linking research institutions, business organizations, and private investors. That’s exactly what we need on Long Island.

Programs like these have the potential to transform local economies if they are executed properly. It will fall on local government to assure that new industries born through these partnerships have the opportunity to grow.  If local government doesn’t provide quick approvals and incentives for innovators and investors to build their businesses when they leave the institutions, jobs created by our innovation cluster will leave the island, just as they have in the past.

I am confident that the institutions above along with NorthShore/LIJ’s Feinstein Institute, Hofstra, Adelphi and LIU will produce great minds with great ideas.  They in turn will develop companies capable of creating good jobs. They have in the past, but can we keep them here?  It’s time for Long Island governments to wake up!  In the face of one of the worst economic climates in history, some LI towns are putting ultra-parochial concerns before regional needs by saying no to good projects that can produce jobs, stimulate the local economy and provide homes for young professionals.  We can build these companies, but where will their employees live?

I have often used this space to talk about how our region changed from a farming and fishing community to a region with a population the size of Chicago.  We have all of the problems of major cities but we pretend we live in Mayberry when we zone.  That’s got to change or we might as well take the money we are investing in clusters and light it on fire.

LIBN Column: Public Officials, Public Events…

Below is the Text from my LIBN Column published today 1/14/2011
I’ve been there, retail politics with a high-profile electedofficial.  In my case, it was US SenatorChuck Schumer on whose staff I served for nearly 6 years.  Chuck loves retail and does it often andwell.  He spends countless hours on LIRRplatforms, in front of supermarkets and at countless parades andfestivals.   He listens to everyone, evenpeople who disagreed with him.  Chancesare if you have gone to the Oyster Fest, Riverhead or Huntington Fall Festivalsyou have seen the Senior Senator talking with his constituents and enjoying thelocal corn.  He loves getting and I lovedbeing with him, even though it often meant working weekends and always added tomy workload.  Elected officials exist toserve the public and you can’t serve the public if you’re not willing to go tothem. 
I never worried that a public event would end inviolence.  To think a nameless, facelessthug would attempt to take the life of an elected official for any reason isunfathomable, even today.   Whilerhetoric employed in modern politics has received greater attention in the wakeof the Arizona shootings, it’s nothing new. Jefferson once referred to John Adams as a hermaphrodite, and there arecountless examples of heated politics in our history.  I’m sure we will debate what effect the toneof the last election had, but clearly this was an act of insanity andfanaticism that has no place in our republic.
After what happened in Arizona, elected officials and staffsacross the nation are likely reconsidering how they interact with voters.  I’m confident this won’t stop them all fromparticipating in retail politics, but it will certainly stop some.  Let’s hope the lasting impact of Arizonawon’t be less access to our leaders by regular people who need their help andrarely have opportunities to interact with members of congress.       
I pray that Giffords survives and goes back to that Safewayfor a “Congress on Your Corner” event soon, and I hope that others don’t hidein their offices as a result of what happened in Arizona. 

Reform Town Government… My LIBN Piece from 12/24

The census data that has started to trickle out confirms what we already know: Long Island is growing and its population has changed. While the last 10 years haven’t brought dramatic change, it could be said the last 330 haven’t either.
Our town governments are pretty much the same as when they were created at the Duke’s Law Convention in the 1680s. The Dukes Law Convention established 12 counties (Suffolk was among them, Nassau was part of Queens until 1900). The Dongan Patents, named for Col. Thomas Dongan, who the King appointed his governor of New York in 1683, established town governance as we know it on Long Island. Designed for agrarian communities with limited populations and ultimately accountable to the King of England, the council/supervisor system rarely works well in today’s large towns.
Today, the system allows bureaucrats, rather than elected officials, to control key decisions. Moreover, no elected official is in charge. Supervisors may look like mayors, but only additional administrative powers differentiate them from their fellow council members. This lack of accountability and control is starting to kill our region and is precisely why the supervisor chair has been a revolving door in Suffolk’s largest town.
Long Island has a population of 3 million, more than Chicago. We need to start behaving more like a modern suburban area and less like a 16th century farming community. Our supervisor/council system should be scrapped and replaced with a mayor/council system where a chief executive elected to a four-year term can hire the people who make decisions on land use and other vital government functions. Right now, the buck doesn’t stop anywhere in most town halls; it gets passed around the table indefinitely, and that spells trouble if you need a decision from a town.
In order for towns to progress, someone needs to be in charge. We see how some towns operate better than others. The difference is always leadership. Where there is a strong supervisor who behaves like a mayor, things get done. Where there is a quarrelling council, things don’t.
I don’t blame the people elected to these offices. They are doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt. I have spoken with many frustrated current and former elected town officials, all who go into the position with the best of intentions. They quickly discover the system can’t be fixed, but rather must be scrapped. I am shocked that the state Legislature hasn’t tried to address this. It should be near the top of both the Senate and Assembly’s local government agenda next session.
This broken government structure has had a negative impact on regional planning. Regional planning efforts have been thwarted by the parochialism that exists all over this Island. Our Regional Planning Board should have the authority to overrule town zoning decisions that have a negative impact on regionally significant projects. If we can’t figure out a way to legally make that happen, planning needs to be removed from the towns altogether and vested in the county.
Again, the problem goes back to the Dukes Law Convention. Counties had limited powers at that time, but unlike towns, county government evolved to meet the demands of changing times. The towns were given land use powers then and, unfortunately, still have it now. Regional concerns rarely trump local ones at town board meetings. No one ever lost an election by saying no to a regionally significant project that faced even minimal opposition.
The Dongan Patents have had a good run. It’s time to put them in a museum where they belong. They were written for a time that’s long gone. We need town governments that are capable of dealing with our modern world. I hope that 2011 is the year that the state Legislature addresses this so Long Island can prosper.

My Column from today’s LIBN….

Here’s my column from today’s LI Business News.  Read more at

Hahn: Consolidation is public schools’ best hope

by Christopher Hahn
Published: September 2, 2010
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Next week our kids go back to school at 118 school districts on Long Island. With a sagging economy and a state budget that some project will create a $20 billion hole next year, now’s the time to start thinking about how we deliver education and if we are preparing our children properly.
Today, Long Island schools are among the best in the nation with several regularly ranking at or near the top. We consistently produce Intel Scholars and most graduates are college-bound. At first glance, Long Island is doing a great job educating its kids. But a closer look paints a different picture. Some districts struggle to meet basic needs. Children who live on the same block may have very different education experiences because of an invisible line that separates a high-performing district on one side of the street from one that underachieves on the other.
This year has been especially tough with many districts forced to cut a variety of programs due to the state’s budget crisis. In the Central Islip School District, junior varsity athletics would have been cut but for the efforts of business leaders who raised funds to keep the program afloat. And to complicate it all, a majority of the funding comes from property taxes, and few can afford a tax hike.
No one would argue the system is perfect and few have been willing to step up with good ideas to make things better. Consolidation is referred to as the “third rail” for a reason: No one wants to touch it and those who do usually get burned. Long Islanders love their local control but don’t want to, and no longer can, pay for it. Something’s got to give.
Some say the administrative savings are not worth the effort or the loss of local control that would come with consolidation, but look at it this way – we have 118 districts. The average district spends 78 percent of its budget on instruction, supplies for the students and classroom upkeep. Another 22 percent is spent on administration and other noninstructional activities.
That’s a fair ratio but it could be better. The principle of economy of scale dictates that the 22 percent should shrink if districts consolidate. We spend approximately $7.4 billion on education on Long Island. Twenty-two percent is approximately $1.7 billion. If we save 10 percent of that, or $170 million, that’s more money than the total budgets of any one of all but nine districts. These savings can keep classes small and keep programs intact. In these tight budget times we need all the savings we can get.
If we can’t consolidate, why not make greater strides toward shared services? Does every district need its own purchasing department? I know it’s just one of many things school administrators do, but districts buy a lot of stuff. It seems like a no-brainer to have districts purchase collectively. Unless chalk and dry erase boards work differently in Kings Park and Deer Park, I don’t see what stops districts from combining this function when senior purchasers retire. At worst, maybe it would lead to better prices.
Finally what are we teaching our kids anyway? Long Island sends well over 80 percent of our kids to college and we should be proud of that. But the world has changed and perhaps it’s time to revisit the high school curriculum to better prepare kids for careers.
Perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the agrarian calendar that gives students 100 days off to pick crops. I don’t see many kids picking crops. They could use that time to study. Maybe if we save 10 percent on administrative costs we could cut summer vacation by 30 percent and use that time to teach real-world skills.

My Column from today’s LIBN….

Hahn: Break the stalemate

by Christopher Hahn
Published: July 23, 2010
Yet another town decided to kill a promising project. The system ensures that it almost always comes down this way. The Lighthouse project is too big an idea for town government to process. We need a better way. Let’s have the state do it.
Ed Mangano should call Gov. Paterson and sell him the project’s property. Paterson and the Legislature should create the Nassau Coliseum Redevelopment Authority. Empower it with two key functions: zoning and bonding.
This authority’s board should be appointed by the governor and the Legislature with one seat from the Town of Hempstead and one from the county, and it should be chaired by the chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Board.
The authority should determine what is economically viable and work with developers to build it. Turning this property over to the state allows the authority to bypass local zoning laws that are not equipped to deal with projects of this magnitude.
This project is too significant to the region to allow parochial interests to stop it. An authority appointed for a single term would not have to worry about getting re-elected and therefore would do the right thing. The only flaw in this plan? It would require the state to work quickly and leaders to agree on something, neither of which seems possible right now.
Town officials must be responsive to local concerns; that’s their job, even in towns as large as Hempstead. It’s good politics, but bad policy. You rarely lose an election by rejecting a project, even one as high-profile as the Lighthouse. The region loses thousands of jobs, millions in tax revenue and countless opportunities for new businesses to emerge.
This isn’t a criticism of the town. They took an overwhelming proposal and responded with something they felt their residents could stomach.
Communication among the town, the county and developers has been suspect throughout this process. Many town officials complained they had little opportunity to discuss components of the project. While the response from Hempstead is unfortunate, it wasn’t unexpected.
The area around the Coliseum is the last remaining place in Nassau for serious development.
Nassau needs accessible downtowns with housing options, entertainment, shopping and office space. Even if we ignore suggestions that this project is not viable without increased density, density equals smart growth. Greater density in a centralized area allows for the preservation of land outside that downtown. If this project fails it will be a lost opportunity and will mean tough choices in Nassau for years to come.