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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Suffolk plan for new, higher fees meets resistance

Legis Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) says he will

Legis Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) says he will move for repeal of a $60 cremation clearance fee in Suffolk County. Photo Credit: James Escher / James Escher

Suffolk lawmakers may finally be reaching the breaking point on new and higher fees.

The county legislature last week rejected a 25 percent hike in the cremation clearance fee — from $60 to $75 — to cover the cost of medical examiner review to determine if remains can be incinerated.

The proposal, estimated to bring in $125,000 in new revenue, failed after Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan said neither state nor county law requires such reviews and Nassau County has no such fee.

“County Executive Steve Bellone is not only feeing us to death, he’s now coming up with ways to shake us down after we’re gone.” said Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who says he will move for repeal of the $60 fee.

Later, lawmakers also made clear they had no appetite for the police department’s proposal to require public assembly permits with fees of up to $1,000 and 60-day advance notice for any event needing a police presence.

Bellone, a Democrat, withdrew the proposal, which was expected to bring in $100,000 in revenue and was widely denounced for trampling on free speech.

And lawmakers for a third time put off a $5.5 million proposal to more than double county administrative fees on traffic and parking tickets, with a $60 increase on each.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said getting the votes for traffic fees would be “tough,” given concerns the higher fees hurt the poor. Gregory said there has been consideration of a sliding scale that would base fee size on the number of violations.

In all, Bellone, this year and last proposed new and higher fees totaling $92 million.

Of the $42.2 million he proposed last year, revenue came in $12.3 million short, largely because of delays in implementation.

The 2017 county budget includes $37.7 million in new fees and another $12.3 million in increases. While the Democratic majority adopted a budget including the new fees, the legislature also must act on each new or higher fee before it can take effect. Repeal or inaction would create a new hole in a budget already listing from a $150 million structural deficit.

Aides to Bellone say the fee increases reflect rising administrative costs, and fall on those who use specific county services.

“No one wants to make county fees too onerous on residents, but we provide great services and you have to have the resources to pay for those services,” Gregory said.

The legislature already has passed the biggest chunk of the new 2017 fees — $33 million hike in mortgage recording fees, with an increase of $300 a parcel on top of a $200 fee first imposed last year, although the impact is often masked by other home closing costs.

But with all 18 legislative seats up in November, Republicans, who opposed the budget, intend to make Democrats pay politically for fee hikes.

“It’s very hard for them to keep a straight face and keep voting for these fees,” said Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), GOP caucus leader. “Some may sneak off to the bathroom during the vote, but they all backed the budget that includes these fees.”

Despite lawmakers’ fee fatigue, more are in the pipeline, including:

  • Up to $500 for workers and businesses that install, repair or degrease commercial range hoods.
  • $125 for anyone bidding on a county contract, and another $275 processing fee for bidders who win contracts worth more than $25,000. Last year, 2,260 bid on contracts, and 1,700 won.

Bellone also has budgeted $1.9 million in revenue from parking meters in commuter lots at rail stations in Brentwood, Wyandanch, Central Islip and Ronkonkoma, but enabling legislation has yet to come forward.

McCaffrey said Bellone views fiscal woes through “rose colored glasses.”

“He worries about nitrogen in the water, but it won’t be a problem — no one will be living here,” he said.

Gregory countered that Republicans have come up with few alternatives.

“It’s easy to find fault, but hard to find a solution,” he said “I’d be happy to consider anything if they can come up with a better answer.”

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