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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Assault on county fee hikes

Look out Nassau.

A group that filed a lawsuit challenging fee increases in Suffolk County could be heading your way. And the potential for blowing big holes in the budgets of both counties could be coming down the line too.

On Tuesday, the Government Justice Center, on behalf of five plaintiffs, filed suit against Suffolk in State Supreme Court seeking refunds of a portion of $66 million in fees levied in 2015 for tax map verification and mortgage recordings.

The group said it also is seeking plaintiffs in Nassau.

Both counties have come under fire for raising fees in a variety of areas as a way to help balance their budgets.

In Nassau, the 2018 budget submitted to lawmakers by outgoing County Executive Edward Mangano would increase fees on traffic tickets and real estate transactions to raise $60 million in new revenues — although Democrats and majority Republicans have moved to kill the increases.

Ed Ward, a spokesman for Mangano, said the county had not reviewed the suit filed against Suffolk, and could not comment. Later, in a statement, County Attorney Carnell Foskey said Nassau already had been sued, in a different case, over earlier increases to the county tax verification fee.

Foskey said the court dismissed almost all the claims in that case, including requests for an injunction to stop fee collection. That case is pending. “The county will continue to defend this lawsuit to protect the taxpayers of Nassau County,” Foskey said.

In the suit against Suffolk, the Government Justice Center, whose board includes members of conservative watchdog groups, included comments by Suffolk County lawmakers to bolster plaintiffs’ argument that Suffolk relied on fee increases rather than raise the county portion of the property tax.

One of the comments included in the suit was this:

“If we vote against this, if it doesn’t pass, you’ve got a $33 million hole in your budget, and that hole will encompass programs that we put in place to be of help and assistance to the people of Suffolk County,” Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said during a Dec. 20 legislative meeting, in discussing the mortgage fee.

Suffolk was “unwilling to rein in its spending or face the political consequences of raising taxes to pay for general fund expenses,” the suit says.

Under state law and legal precedent, local fee hikes must equal the cost of providing services, according to the lawsuit.

Over the past few years, fee increases or new fees on a variety of services — including some real estate transactions — in Nassau have been used to justify proposed increases in Suffolk.

Jason Elan, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a statement to Newsday called Tuesday’s lawsuit “politically motivated.” He said the complaint was filed by Albany “insiders who lack any understanding on how government costs are apportioned yet have no problem saddling taxpayers with the cost of fighting this completely frivolous complaint.”

Still, residents in both counties — weary of fee increases and tax hikes — will be watching.

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