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Nassau lawmakers pass $2.9B budget, ticket surcharge on hold

Valley Stream resident Malik Amid expresses displeasure with

Valley Stream resident Malik Amid expresses displeasure with the Nassau legislature before they approved a $2.9 billion budget Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. A proposed traffic and parking ticket fee was not included in the fiscal plan. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau legislature on Monday approved the county’s $2.9 billion budget for next year, but delayed a decision on its most controversial component: a $105 surcharge on traffic and parking tickets to fund new police hires.

Lawmakers voted 11-6 to accept the spending plan, which includes no property tax hike and — at least temporarily — a $77 million hole from the anticipated fee revenues. Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) voted with minority Democrats opposing the budget, citing the potential for fee increases.

The vote came on the deadline under county law for passage of the budget. But the approval, in many ways, was merely procedural, as how to balance the budget is still in question.

In putting off County Executive Edward Mangano’s proposed “public safety fee,” the GOP majority also opened itself up to criticism that it’s avoiding the fiercest public outcry until after the Nov. 8 election, when a number of Nassau Republicans are locked in competitive state senate and congressional races. County legislators are up for re-election next year.

“Let’s call it for what it is,” said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), who pushed for the fees to be rejected outright Monday. “You’re stalling until after the election.”

The ticket surcharge, which more than doubles the current cost of some traffic and parking violations, is expected to generate $64 million to pay for the hiring of 150 new police officers and 81 civilian law enforcement employees. Republican lawmakers also tabled a decision on about $13 million in new and increased business license fees.

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said the majority was “working tirelessly” to find alternatives to the fee hikes, including “accelerating” implementation of a 2013 county law requiring commercial property owners to pay hefty penalties if they do not provide timely information to the county assessor about their income and expenses.

That law, however, has been challenged by a commercial tax attorney and the case is expected to be heard by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in late 2017.

“We’ll exhaust every avenue to find other means to fund the budget” without fee increases, Gonsalves said.

Republicans said they have until Dec. 1 to introduce amendments to replace revenue from the fees, but Abrahams said they violated the county charter by passing an unbalanced budget.

Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin reacted to the legislature’s vote by saying: “we fully anticipate the budget will freeze property taxes for residents while delivering critical services and supporting important public safety initiatives.”

But Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state watchdog in control of the county’s finances, said the legislature’s vote Monday was “irresponsible.” He threatened to reject the budget and send it back for major changes if it is not balanced.

“If left with no other options, NIFA will impose severe cuts that will, without a doubt, drastically impact many of the essential services Nassau County residents rely on,” Barsky said.

Legislative Republicans Monday also called on county Comptroller George Maragos to present a “detailed plan” showing how Nassau could cut expenses without raising fees. Maragos last week called for stripping all fee hikes from the budget and replacing the revenue with department spending cuts of 3.8 percent across the board.

For example, the budget calls for a nearly 20 percent increase in the Office of Information Technology while Civil Service would get a 16 percent hike.

“The 2017 county budget needs to better align priorities and challenge every department to economize before asking our residents to pay more,” said Maragos, who recently switched from Republican to Democrat to run for county executive next year.

Mangano’s budget director Roseann D’Alleva said across-the-board cuts would “absolutely” result in layoffs and reduced public safety and social service programs. She attributed department spending increases to salary, pension and benefit mandates.

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