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Protesters back proposal to make Suffolk County fees more transparent

Reclaim New York organized a rally in Hauppauge Tuesday to protest Suffolk County fees and endorsed a measure sponsored by Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) that would limit those fees to the actual cost of services. Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles

Protesters Tuesday night attacked the county for imposing millions in excessive fees and backed proposed legislation they said would rein the costs in.

Toting signs including “Suffolk Stop Stealing Our Money” and “Justice for Suffolk — Fight the Fees” protesters endorsed a measure sponsored by Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) that would limit fees to the actual cost of services. Six of the two-dozen protesters spoke at a news conference in Hauppauge prior to the county legislature hearing on the proposal.

“Suffolk County has made a decision to steal from the taxpayer,” said Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York Initiative, a nonprofit group that organized the event, which included the display of an oversized  $70 million check with the notation “paid in protest.”

Melissa Jennifer Shea, head of the Long Island Real Estate Investors Association, said the high cost of fees are making people who fix and flip zombie homes look go where fees are far more reasonable. “It’s a short-term cure, but a long-term loss,” she said.

“These are nothing more than taxes in hiding,” said Trotta noting state law bars local governments from imposing fees that exceed the cost of the service provided. “What we are trying to do is provide transparency of what these fees actually cost.”

The proposed local law would require the county executive in his proposed annual operating budget to list in a separate section all fees charged by the county, the services provided for each fee, and the county cost of providing the service.

The proposal also mandates the director of budget review to determine if the fees charged for county services are calculated to cover the cost without generating surplus revenue. The law would also bar excess revenues from fees from funding any other county expense.

Trotta’s measure come after County Executive Steve Bellone and the Democratic controlled county legislature imposed a variety of fees on burglar alarms, cremations, car registrations, and tax map verification fees connected to the recording of mortgages. A lawsuit filed by a separate nonprofit challenging the fees was filed nearly a year ago.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he opposes the proposal and maintained the fees are legitimate. “We have to let it play out in court,” he said. “If we do anything now it might weaken our position in court..”

Critics say the fees connected to mortgages can often multiply when a house is on multiple lots, or when people are both buying and selling. They also say the fees are a hardship for first-time home buyers, or when people are  paying off a home-equity loan or putting a home in trust for an older parent.

Muir said their group has sent out a mailing and made calls to its 750 local members and done cyber ads to attract attention to the issue. He also said the group intends to launch similar legislation with other local governments across Long Island  to curb abuses.

Trotta acknowledges that he has an uphill battle to win passage. “There has to be a lot of public pressure if this going to pass,” said Trotta, adding, “But if these officials tried  to raise taxes as high as these fees they would never get elected to anything.”

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