“Back-door taxes.” That’s what Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta called increased fees being imposed in Suffolk County.
“Suffolk County Fees Are Crushing The Taxpayer!” declared one of the posters at the news conference last month in Hauppauge at which Trotta attacked the fee hikes.
The legislator, from Fort Salonga, announced that he will be introducing a measure that would limit Suffolk County fee increases to 2-percent per year — the same percentage that New York State has set for property tax increases.
“The cap will put an end to the horrifying 100-percent increase in your ‘taxes’ you pay every year through fees, permits, licenses, and registrations,” declared one of the posters at the news conference December 19. “Stop the Madness! Cap The Fees!” it said.
Suffolk County has been in difficult times financially since the start of what has been called the “Great Recession” of 2007-2008. Hard-hit in the slow-down in consumer spending has been the collection of sales tax monies upon which Suffolk County government has become increasingly dependent. The economy has been improving but still sales tax collections have not been as strong as anticipated by the administration of Suffolk County government. Meanwhile, more than half the county’s operating budget is now based on sales tax receipts.
One of the posters at the Trotta press conference reflected on how Suffolk has been increasing fees: These included a “Tax Map Verification Fee” increase of 150 percent in 2015 plus $25 this year; a “Mortgage Fee” jump of 100 percent in 2016 bringing this fee to $300 per transaction; a “Traffic Violations Default Fee” that has included “various fee increases on default payments on tickets;” “Occupational Certification/Licensing Fees” with, as an example, dog groomers “the most recent to face a 100-percent increase in fees for their licenses;” a “Car Registration Fee” with a 200-percent hike in the “county portion of bill; an “Alarm Registration Fee [with] a 100-percent increase bringing this fee up to between $50 and $100; a “Parking, Traffic, Red Light Camera Fee” with tickets “projected to be raised 95 percent” and red light camera penalties going from $80 to $150; and “Various Park Service Fees” increased 10 percent in 2016 and to go up “again” 10 percent in 2017.
Another poster — titled “Suffolk County Fee Hikes” — showed a 100-percent overall increase in fees collected by the county between 2015 and 2016, for a total of $46 million, and another 100-percent increase from 2016 to 2017, for a total of $50 million.
“Taxes have caps, and now our county fees need them, too,” said yet another poster. “A 2-percent cap has to be placed on increasing fees to protect taxpayers from the injustices of backdoor taxes!”
In 2012 in New York State, a tax cap was instituted which limits property tax increases for counties, cities, villages, towns, fire and school districts to two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
Participating too in the news conference was Smithtown Town Supervisor Patrick Vecchio. Having taken office as supervisor in 1978, he is the longest-serving town supervisor ever on Long Island and in New York State. Vecchio also has knowledge of taxes beyond his being town supervisor for 38 years; prior to that, he was assistant director of special investigations for the New York State Tax Department. Before that, he was a detective sergeant with the New York City Police Department. At the news conference, Vecchio emphasized that fees are supposed to cover the costs of providing specific services.
Trotta also is a retired cop — he was with Suffolk County Police Department for 25 years, most of them as a detective. Trotta’s district includes a good part of the Town Smithtown including Nissequogue, Head of the Harbor, Smithtown proper and parts of Commack, St. James and his Fort Salonga hometown.
In an interview, Trotta, a Republican, said the key issue is that the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, “has mismanaged county government.” The Bellone administration, he said, “has no sense of fiscal responsibility — they act like a teenager with a credit card.” County government, said Trotta, “needs to stop spending” rather than to use fees instead of taxes.
When it was noted that neighboring Nassau County has also been adding and increasing fees in place of taxes, Mr. Trotta commented: “Just because someone jumps off a bridge, it doesn’t mean that it’s right for anyone to jump off a bridge.”
A spokesperson for the Bellone administration had this comment for us on the Trotta move: “Capping increases in fees without knowing what the cost of service or administration will be does not represent prudent fiscal planning. Revenue caps restrict flexibility, hampering a government’s ability to respond to unforeseen negative events. The cost of doing business and regional comparisons are always factored into the analysis concerning fee increases within Suffolk County. It is preferable to take budgetary action as needed and not impose rigid revenue caps.”
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.