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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau fee hikes: One way to help balance the books

Eugene Nickerson Beach in Lido Beach has special

Eugene Nickerson Beach in Lido Beach has special events and a summer recreation program for children ages 5-12. Credit: Flickr/Jim Groom

Nassau County's move to increase fees on a variety of services, from golf to beach cabanas, raised a ruckus from some residents fuming about backdoor taxes.

But wait.

Services cost money.

And Nassau, which is working to fill a hole in its budget while scouting out additional revenue to cover the cost of new labor contracts, needs money.

Hiking fees is a way to get it.

The other way to do it is to raise property taxes.

But Long Island politicians for years have been shy about raising taxes because they don't want to upset residents. Politically, it's an almost surefire strategy for the officials -- right up until it comes back to bite them.

Take former Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta.

There was a time in the 1980s when Nassau needed more money to fund services. So, Gulotta proposed a tax increase.

But he got his ears boxed by county Republican leaders, who knew that no-tax-increase budgets were political gold.

From then on, Gulotta, year after year, proposed budgets with no tax increase in the general fund.

Gulotta also got creative.

He sold the money-losing county hospital to a public benefit corporation -- although the county, to this day, guarantees its bonds -- and his budget directors took great pride in digging up other new sources of revenue.

But the years of no-tax-increase budgets also appear to have had another impact.

Some Nassau residents apparently have come to believe they can get something -- increasingly expensive services -- for almost nothing.

Mangano's move on fees challenges that view.

Yes, many of the fee increases were approved two years ago and left unenforced until after last year's elections, when Mangano won re-election with a lopsided majority.

Mangano has a five-year string of no-tax-increase budgets.

But he's had to get creative too. He's put management of the county bus service into private hands, and the administration is considering doing the same with the county sewer and stormwater system.

Mangano has proposed multiple failed initiatives to push the burden of property tax refunds from the county onto school districts and other taxing entities. He's settled hundreds of thousands of residential assessment appeal cases to minimize the county's liability.

His latest initiative -- a plan before the State Legislature that would allow Nassau to finance commercial property tax reimbursements by requiring those grieving their assessments to place as much as 10 percent of their assessed property value into escrow -- seeks the same end.

All in all, Mangano has been working in multiple arenas -- far more than Gulotta -- to cut costs and increase revenues.

That includes goring a sacred cow, the county police department, by temporarily putting some plainclothes officers back in uniform and out on the street to cut overtime costs.

There came a point where a rising gap between expenses and revenues began to hurt Gulotta politically -- and at that point even his own party pressured him not to seek another term.

Mangano has not hit that point. In fact, despite some predictions to the contrary, Wall Street bonding agencies sustained, rather than dropped, Nassau's bond rating after the county approved a series of expensive labor contracts.

Still, Mangano is garnering criticism for his moves. Fee increases aren't popular, and some of his initiatives, such as the move on commercial property assessments, seem rushed and not well vetted.

But the skirmishes are useful in reminding residents that services cost money, no matter how wildly popular the mantra of not raising taxes may be.

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