Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone withdrew a proposal Tuesday to double traffic ticket fees amid growing public backlash against the hikes.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he had asked Bellone’s administration to find alternatives to the traffic ticket fee, which was budgeted to raise $5.5 million a year, as Democratic lawmakers balked at doubling the fee to $110 per ticket.
Bellone responded Tuesday by dropping plans for $8.1 million in new and higher fees and called instead for cuts that would block step increases for about 400 top county nonunion employees, and force them and elected officials to pay a 15 percent share of health insurance costs.
Bellone made the move hours before county lawmakers met Tuesday night to consider for the fourth time doubling the $55 fee for traffic and parking tickets.
“If the legislature doesn’t want to move forward with fees already approved in the budget, that’s fine,” Bellone said. “But that doesn’t change the reality that we still have to make tough decisions to protect the taxpayers.”
Gregory said he would consider Bellone’s new plans to make cuts.
“This legislature has always given full consideration to budget ideas,” he said. “The most effective plans are the ones that are worked in collaboration with the legislative branch and the executive branch to address our fiscal challenges.”
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has proposed repealing fee increases on security alarm systems and mortgages, as well as a 2 percent cap on county fee increases, said Bellone and Democrats are responding to public anger.
“They now realize the residents of Suffolk County have had enough and in this election year fear for their jobs,” he said.
All 18 legislative seats are up for election in November.
Other fees Bellone withdrew involve item pricing at stores, fees on county contractors and new registration fees for firms that clean oven range hoods.
Budgets submitted by Bellone and approved by the legislature included $92 million in new and higher fees in 2016 and 2017. Legislative budget analysts say that even with the proposed fees, the county faced a $135 million structural deficit — the difference between recurring expenses and revenue.
Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia), Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) were considered to be the swing votes on fees, and helped pass this year’s budget. They said Tuesday they were firmly against the traffic fee hike, which would have added $55 to parking and traffic tickets, though not on red-light camera tickets.
“The fees already in place are high to begin with. To increase them further would be an additional burden on the taxpayers,” Lindsay said.
He explained his vote for the budget but opposition to the traffic fee by saying he supported “90 percent of the budget . . . I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Anker said she had “gotten calls from my constituents to hold the line on fees. It’s up to the county executive on where he’s going to find the funding.”
Lawmakers have taken criticism for fee increases that have raised the cost for camping in county parks and filing and paying off mortgages.
“We’re not six-figure people. By doing this, it’s creating a hardship,” Winnie Esoff, 73, of Kings Park told lawmakers on Tuesday during a public hearing.
She had taken out a $30,000 home equity loan in 2005 to help pay for care of her husband, who had early-onset Alzheimers. When she paid the loan off on March 1, she was shocked to learn of the $550 bill.
“It’s hard enough to keep a roof over our heads,” said Esoff, a retired teacher’s aid.
The Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency collected $53.6 million in fees and fines in 2016, and had $12.2 million in operating costs. Profits from the traffic agency go to the Suffolk police district.
Residents have complained to lawmakers that traffic tickets cost hundreds of dollars and contain late penalties that steeply escalate.
Gregory said members of his caucus had expressed concerns both about the proposed traffic fee and how the traffic agency was run.
“People have expressed concerns about the operations out there,” Gregory said. “There’s a feeling minorities have been targeted. People have not been treated well.”
The traffic court earlier this year agreed to stop jailing motorists for traffic violations after complaints to the court system.
Bellone said he had filed legislation Tuesday night to freeze exempt employees’ step increases, to take effect July 1, which would save $1.2 million. He added he would file other resolutions with the legislature within several weeks, including a measure to require exempt and elected officials to share in insurance costs, saving another $1.2 million, and reduce the salaries of newly hired exempt and elected officials by 10 percent, a $400,000 a year savings. He also called for returning the district attorney’s office to a salary plan in place before 2015 for newly hired prosecutors, saving $40,000 in 2018.
On his own, Bellone said he also would exercise his power as chief budget officer to embargo 10 percent of department funds as he has done in past years.
Though not formally part of his package, Bellone also urged lawmakers to approve a Lindsay proposal, which stops automatic pay raises for legislators, who now make $100,854 a year. “We’re all in this together,” said Bellone, who has frozen his salary at $187,000 since taking office.
Lawmakers on Tuesday night also approved an 8-year, $23.8 million contract for sheriff’s deputies, who have not had a contract since 2011. Director of Labor Relations Jennifer McNamara told lawmakers that the deal, which gives 23 percent raises over the life of the contract, was better than arbitration. She said the county did not have a specific plan on how to pay the additional $7,279,000 needed to pay for the 2017 increases, but said the county was looking to find savings elsewhere in the budget and would ask Sheriff Vincent DeMarco to find savings.
Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said he was surprised the administration wouldn’t offer specifics. “I don’t think that’s adequate, to say you don’t know,” Barraga said.
Trotta was the only vote against the contract, saying the average raises of 2.54 percent exceeded inflation.
In other action, lawmakers approved $534,000 to hire a contractor to rewrite the rules and procedures handbook for the Suffolk County Police Department. California-based Lexipol will be paid from asset forfeiture funds with extensions of up to five years of $193,500 per year from the general fund. Suffolk Police Lt. Mike Homan said the existing handbook is “cumbersome and unwieldy.” Rewriting the police rule book in-house would require five to seven full-time officers, Homan said.