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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Billion-dollar payrolls in Nassau, Suffolk explain why fees are rising

A red-light camera sign on Old Country Road

A red-light camera sign on Old Country Road in Westbury on Aug. 18, 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Want to know why fees are rising? And why red light cameras have been sprouting up on street corners across Long Island for years now? It’s the billion-dollar payroll in Nassau — and, for the first time ever, as of 2016, in Suffolk, too.

For years now, both county executives, Steve Bellone in Suffolk and Edward Mangano in Nassau, have been boasting of their workforce-shrinking prowess.

In Nassau, there are 1,700 fewer county employees than when Mangano took office in 2010, leaving 16,000 full-time and part-time workers on the payroll as of last year. In Suffolk, meanwhile, the number of workers decreased by 1,000 under Bellone, leaving a balance of 12,700.

Logic — and certainly the county executives’ boasting — might make residents assume that a 10.6 percent staff reduction for Nassau and an almost 8 percent reduction for Suffolk, would translate into savings.

And significant ones at that. But no.

Instead, as a Sunday Newsday report found, both counties, even with fewer employees, now are busting the billion-dollar payroll mark — and doing so at a time when Nassau and Suffolk officials are scrambling to fill budget holes.

Back in the 1990s, Thomas Gulotta, Nassau’s former county executive, liked to boast about the municipality’s being “creative” in finding new revenue. And the policy worked — that is, until county’s budget imploded, leaving then-Gov. George Pataki to put a financial control board in place.

Look to both counties today and “creative” revenue hunting has become really creative.

Nassau, which started raising user fees and shedding county facilities — including Nassau University Medical Center — in the 1990s, last year approved licensing fees for health clubs, pet groomers, and tattoo and piercing parlors.

Suffolk, comparatively new to the game, followed in Nassau’s early footsteps by hiking things such as mortgage recording fees. But the county struck out into uncharted territory with a proposal to increase a “cremation clearance fee” to cover the cost of having a county medical examiner review cases to determine whether remains could be incinerated.

The fee would have brought in $125,000 in brand new revenue. But Suffolk lawmakers, already feeling the heat of resident displeasure on other increases, rejected it — after learning that neither state nor county law required medical examiners to review before a body was incinerated.

Lawmakers also balked after learning that Nassau had no such fee. But the budget year is young.

Both counties, in defending their billion-dollar payrolls, cite the smaller workforces — which, presumably, means that costs would have been astronomically higher before workers retired or were let go. The counties also cited anticipated savings — somewhere down the line — as the number of lower-compensated new employees grows to replace higher-compensated ones.

And yet payroll — which does not, by the way include health-care and pension costs — continues to rise.

The Newsday report noted both counties’ hope that sales tax revenues keep rising to cover expenses. But finances usually improve with action, rather than hope.

“Billion-dollar personnel costs should not only push officials to make some tough decisions here, but get citizens to demand action and realize this problem is one of the big reasons Long Island is so unaffordable, ” Doug Kellogg, communications director for Reclaim New York — a Manhattan-based government watchdog group chaired by Rebekah Mercer, a prominent supporter of Donald Trump — told Newsday.

In short — and with apologies to Yoda — fees will not the problem solve.

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