File photo: Denise Civiletti

Let’s take a look at the huge fee increases charged by Suffolk County in order to balance its operating budget. Then we can welcome a proposal to do something about it that‘s actually gaining steam. We‘ll also take note of a citizens‘ group that‘s valiantly standing up to Suffolk‘s free-for-all with fees. We‘ll even check out how neighboring, ailing Nassau County handles fees better than we do. Fat fees made interesting — just read on.

Here‘s one example of Suffolk‘s playing it fast and loose with the fees they charge us: it used to cost $65 to record a mortgage at the Suffolk County Clerk‘s office. It takes a deputy clerk about 30 seconds to perform this task. But here the county saw the chance to pocket more of our money. So the county executive proposed increasing this mortgage recording fee to a whopping $550, and most of the Suffolk County Legislature quickly and quietly approved it. And yes, it still takes all of 30 seconds to record a mortgage.

This $550 mortgage recording fee hammers first-home buyers, as well as people who are both buying and selling, or paying off a home equity loan, or mortgaging a house that is on more than one lot. Robbing the already beleaguered taxpayer in Suffolk County with an insane mortgage recording fee even prolongs the “zombie” home problem. According to the L.I. Real Estate Investors Association, it‘s already apparent that investors who repair and flip zombie homes are losing interest in doing business here owing to fees like this.

Suffolk County fees for simple things such as, among others, event permits, taking a civil service exam, testing fire equipment, and tax map certifications are climbing far too high. New fees are being proposed and quickly approved in the county budgets of the past several years, such as “administrative fees” for traffic tickets. If you review the budget, many of these fees are not clearly identified when adopted – they‘re vaguely listed as “service fees – miscellaneous.” Not to worry, the county legislature still approves them.

Irresponsible spending these last few years has put Suffolk in worse shape than Nassau County, where a special state-appointed oversight board calls the shots when it comes to their county budget. The state won‘t place such a board in Suffolk, owing to the cozy relationship between its county executive and the governor. The two of them see eye-to-eye when it comes to big spending, big taxes, and big fees. It‘s what they do. It‘s who they are. The fawning media coverage of these kindred spirits in their frequent public appearances together warms the heart.

Take the seven-year-long contract with the unions of the Suffolk police – by which a patrolman earns an annual salary of over $200,000 after only five years on the force. That deal with the ever politically supportive unions landed the county in a real fiscal hole. And get this: a new PD deputy commish just came on board in Suffolk who will earn $309,460 in annual salary plus the pension he already collects as a Nassau PD retiree.

Throw on a host of other spending sprees, and years of borrowing to pay operating expenses, and we see why Suffolk has suffered one credit rating downgrade after another over the last few years by Moody‘s, S&P and Fitch, with negative outlooks.

And all through this craze with raising fees, on top of their grab of our property taxes, the 8.625 percent of sales tax, more than half of which Suffolk keeps for itself, all kinds of federal and state aid, and grants galore, Suffolk County just can‘t make ends meet anymore.

Endless increases in fees is a perfect fit for Suffolk‘s politicians who do the budget and vote for the fees. It gets little publicity. As mentioned, you can‘t really find them in the budget documents. It gives Suffolk‘s executive and legislators the chance to rake in more and more revenue while appearing to avoid tax increases. And they still have to borrow. According to the Reclaim NY Initiative, more than $70 million worth of increased fees has been imposed on us over the last three years to try to balance Suffolk‘s budgets.

Kudos to any citizens group that stands up to oppressive government spending. Reclaim NY Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, the kind that too rarely emerges anywhere in New York, has begun the thankless effort to “fight city hall,” and has even sued the county over its gambit with fees, branding them as “taxes in hiding.” They‘re also actively supporting Legis. Robert Trotta‘s proposal to limit fees to the actual cost to provide the service, to require the county executive to separately list in his budgets all fees charged by the county, and to bar excess revenues from fees from funding any other county expense.

To no one‘s surprise, this proposed bill, and the citizen complaints, put the county executive, and the legislative majority, including its presiding officer, on edge. This fee-limit idea earned their spirited opposition as soon as it was announced.

Meanwhile, in what has been widely publicized as the fiscal train wreck of Nassau County, they have been charging, since 2014, an annual registration fee of $125 for any vendor interested in doing business with Nassau County. Just for the chance to bid on a county purchase order in Nassau, most of which are less than $10,000, a vendor had to shell out $125.

It finally dawned on the Nassau County exec and legislators, however, that Nassau‘s annual registration fee was not only stifling competition, but also shutting out small business owners, where all costs really count. They came to recognize that their fee was a barrier for small businesses, particularly minority- and women-owned firms.

But Nassau‘s enlightened perspective never enters Suffolk‘s radar. In Nassau, said one small business owner based in Merrick, “I know some people may say $125 seems small, but when you‘re a small business owner, you have a million other different responsibilities to take care of. That $125 can make a difference.” Listen up, Suffolk!

With this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, Nassau eliminated this $125 vendor fee. On top of that, they set up a website to allow vendors to view and submit paperwork electronically, cutting red tape down to a matter of hours instead of a number of weeks or months. Best of all, Nassau County politicians have set out on a path to reduce other fees that hinder their economy.

Yet Suffolk County‘s fees keep climbing.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg