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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Are fee hikes backdoor tax increases?

Suffolk’s legislature is slated to vote later this month on doubling the county’s fee on traffic and parking tickets. The increase, which is expected to pass, will bolster badly needed county revenues by $5.5 million.

That’s in addition to the extra $200,000 Suffolk will get by increasing fees on civil service exams — a measure passed, via last-minute resolution, by the legislature last week.

And THAT’S in addition to the $33 million in new revenue the county gained by passing a $300 increase in the mortgage fee increase passed in December.

Fee? Fie!

Foe, frumph!

I smell the blood of an — well, actually a series, of backdoor tax increases. Because that’s what fees are.

Officials like to justify such moves by saying they’re being imposed only on those who use the services.

But buying a house?

Selling property?

Sitting for a police exam?

How about getting a parking ticket, where the surcharge — for the sole reason of funding county coffers — is higher than the violation’s fine?

One Suffolk official justified the increases by saying the county merely was following in the tracks of Nassau — which has been under a financial control board longer than “Malcolm in the Middle,” which also debuted in 2000, had its prime time run on TV.

Last year, Suffolk increased fees by $42.2 million; this year fees are expected to rise by another $42.7 million — together, roughly doubling what Suffolk receives in general property tax revenue.

Lawmakers supporting the latest increases — many of which were in the 2017 county budget approved last year — said they went along rather than risk burrowing a hole in an already structurally unbalanced budget. That would seem to imply that officials have been keeping a keen eye on county revenues and expenditures.

But then comes a Sunday report from Newsday’s Rick Brand about how Suffolk has discovered a separate, unanticipated gap in projected revenues.

That gap — $18 million — is small beans in the county’s multibillion-dollar budget.

As of last week, however, officials seemed stymied as to where it came from — but confident enough to point fingers at one another. Did the gap come about because some residents are delinquent in paying their taxes? Is it because estimates on delinquencies were flawed? Is it because estimates on the number of tax delinquencies were correct — but the total dollar of unpaid taxes were higher?

Plentiful scenarios were bandied about; but, alas, no solution — other than some politically convenient discussion about placing a cap on how much fees could jump.

Would that end the increases? Maybe — and perhaps you’d be interested in trading that cow for some beans?


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