A red-light camera at Indian Head Rd. and Jericho Tpke....

A red-light camera at Indian Head Rd. and Jericho Tpke. in Commack on April 11, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

A state Supreme Court justice delivered a swift kick in the budget to Suffolk last week, ruling the county had zero legal authority to pile a $30 administrative fee on top of the $50 fine for red-light camera violations.

And the decision in the Suffolk case could have ramifications for Nassau, which has added not one, but two, such fees.

In an 11-page ruling, Justice David T. Reilly also managed to resolve — once and for all — last year's back-and-forth between Suffolk lawmakers about whether red-light cameras were put into place for safety, or to raise revenues.

Turns out, from the program's inception, it was designed to do both.

Let's go to a state Division of the Budget memo on the subject of state legislation that allowed Suffolk to opt into the program:

"This bill would authorize the County to adopt a red-light camera traffic safety demonstration program …," reads the memo, which was included in Reilly's decision.

"In recent years, Suffolk County and a number of other larger municipalities have requested … authorization to both improve public safety and raise additional revenue to offset the local property tax burden," the memo says.

So, there ya go.

As for whether fees could be added to fines, the judge took us back on that one too, citing what he called "a colloquy" between two state Assembly members, before the legislation was passed in 2009:

"The $50 fine that is associated with this violation, is that the only charge that a person will suffer as a result of their vehicle going through this; or it is possible that they would be subject to other surcharges under the law?," an assemblyman asked.

"No," came the reply from then-Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), one of the bill's sponsors. "No other surcharges. However, in the event that the fines are not paid, the municipality or the county can levy an additional $25 fine."

"But the usual administrative fees that we see sometimes tacked on to the Vehicle and Traffic Law violations do not apply in this instance?"

"No," Levine answered, "they do not."

So, there ya go, again.

But the judge, recognizing the potential "serious fiscal implications" for Suffolk, didn't issue a final ruling in the case, saying Suffolk, "must be afforded a further opportunity to be heard on this important matter." 

Note, please: That "important matter" would be Suffolk's potential loss of fee revenue — a total of some $50 million total since administrative fee was added. (Annual red-light camera revenue, which comes to some $20 million a year, goes to fund police, officials said.)

Reilly's ruling came last Monday in a class-action lawsuit challenging the administrative fee. Robert McGrath, of Mount Sinai, filed the suit in 2016.

As it is, Long Island municipalities already are reeling from higher expenses, and the loss of revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The judge's ruling, which Suffolk said it would appeal, potentially compounds those losses — which, in turn, could impact county services.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has said he's most worried for now about the health of Suffolk's residents — along with jump-starting the region's economy. 

But when the debate resumes — as most certainly it will — over the purpose of red-light cameras in Suffolk, and in Nassau, the discussion should be as much about revenue as safety.

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