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Vote on Nassau County fee cuts delayed

Legis. Kevan Abrahams, minority leader of the Nassau

Legis. Kevan Abrahams, minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, was among Democrats who voted on Monday to delay votes on cuts to county fees. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Democrats in the Nassau County Legislature on Monday temporarily blocked legislation that would cut $100 million in traffic and real estate fees that have drawn criticism from residents but are key sources of funding for the county's annual budget.

Also, as of late Monday evening, legislators voted to table Democratic County Executive Laura Curran's plan to send $375 payments to households using $100 million in federal pandemic aid.

The vote was 10-8 along party lines. Republicans expressed concern about the county's ability to implement the program and whether the payments were allowed under U.S. Treasury guidelines.

Democratic county legislators said for years they have opposed the real estate and traffic fees Republican lawmakers first proposed cutting on Sept. 13.

But Nassau Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) criticized majority Republicans, many of whom helped to enact the fees several years ago, for proposing fee cuts just two days before Curran formally filed her 2022 budget plan on Sept. 15.

Screaming matches erupted at the meeting, as Abrahams accused Republicans of trying to "send the budget into chaos" just weeks before elections for county executive and all 19 legislative seats.

The fees generate about $100 million in annual revenue to the county, and Democrats called out their GOP counterparts before settling on a plan to make up for the lost revenues.

"Maybe they [Republicans] want a little chaos 30 some-odd days before the election, to show taxpayers that we're going to reduce your fees" that, " 'Oh by the way, we instituted,' " Abrahams said.

The GOP-backed bills would kill a $55 public safety fee added to most traffic violations, and a $355 tax map verification fee used to verify a property's section, block and lot.

The fee for recording mortgages would be reduced from $300 to $50.

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said the county could afford the proposed fee cuts.

"The county's financial position has changed for the better, largely because of sales tax revenues, which have done very well, but also because the county has refinanced its debt and has greater flexibility in terms of its finances at present," Nicolello said.

Nicolello also noted that a state Supreme Court justice ruled in March 2020 that the $355 tax map verification fee was unconstitutional.

The county is appealing the decision, but Nicolello said he believed the ruling would invalidate other fees as well.

To continue budgeting the fees "under these circumstances is an extremely risky proposition for this county," Nicolello said.

Also, fee reductions will "give relief to our residents," including those closing on homes in the next few days.

Democrats used a procedural tactic to delay votes on the fee cuts, citing a legislative rule saying that bills must be filed 17 days before a full legislative hearing is scheduled.

Lawmakers failed to secure the 12 votes needed to suspend the rules and pass the legislation.

The vote failed along party lines, 10-7.

Legis. Joshua Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury who caucuses with Democrats, abstained from the vote. Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence) left the meeting to observe a religious holiday.

Abrahams said he agreed with Nicolello's argument that the county's financial state had improved since the fees were imposed.

But "I would love to hear what ideas you have to plug that hole" in the county budget, Abrahams said.

Nicolello countered that Democrats have had almost four years to press Curran, who took office in 2018, to kill the fees.

Republicans also noted that in 2015, Democrats had joined Republicans in voting to boost some of the real estate fees.

Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) and Abrahams then began to spar over the issue.

At one point, Abrahams interrupted Gaylor, saying he was "completely restating the facts."

Gaylor shot back: "When I'm done speaking you will have your turn, sir. But until that time, sit back down and be quiet, sir."

"I'll just take my place, I guess, Mr. Gaylor," Abrahams replied. "I know that's what you'd like ... We take our place ... sit in my place."

Curran's plan to provide $375 checks to Nassau households would use $100 million in funds Nassau received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Under Curran's bill, checks of up to $375 would go to residents who earn $168,900 or less.

Residents earning up to $500,000 would be eligible for payments if they can show proof of financial losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Homeowners and renters also would be eligible for payments.

A Nassau spokesman said the income would be considered taxable earlier this month. But on Friday, Nassau special counsel Conal Denion said the county would review whether there could be an exemption.

Also Monday, legislators voted to table a bill banning countywide elected officials from sending out most government-funded mass mailers within 45 days of an election. Legis. Delia DeRiggi Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said she was concerned an elected official would be barred from notifying a resident about ways to be reimbursed for natural disasters.

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