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Ire over Fire Island ferry surcharge plan

Residents and visitors aboard the ferry to Fire

Residents and visitors aboard the ferry to Fire Island. (May 31, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Fire Island residents and private ferry operators Tuesday demanded the Bellone administration drop a proposal to add a 25-cent surcharge on ferry riders' tickets as a revenue-raising measure for Suffolk County.

Fire Island Ferries president Tim Mooney, who testified at Tuesday's legislative session, told Newsday ferry operators would sue the county if the proposal wasn't abandoned.

"I'm not going to become the county henchman for tax collection," Mooney said. "We're going to take legal action if the county doesn't let this die a natural death," he added, saying his company, Sayville Ferry and Davis Park Ferry are working together on the issue.

County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled a variety of proposals earlier this month to begin closing Suffolk's $530-million budget gap, including the 25-cent increase for Fire Island ferry rides, a $1 hike in minibus rides for the disabled and as much as a $50 surcharge for moving traffic violations.

Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) said he had asked the county attorney to provide the legal basis for the surcharge.

Opponents say the county is circumventing the process by which it can levy a surcharge, arguing it must either seek state approval or introduce the levy when licensing ferry operators or considering their request for rate increases.

Fire Island residents groups this week wrote to  county leaders asking to have the plan shelved.

After county officials indicated the ferry surcharge may be used to offset costs of the marine police division, Fire Island Association president Suzy Goldhirsch said that raised "a serious question of fairness."

"Other ferries in Suffolk County are exempt from the tax and yet they and the communities they serve benefit from [marine division] services," she wrote.

Fire Island homeowners pay almost $5 million a year in property taxes specifically dedicated to the county police budget, but receive police services "basically for only three months -- from Memorial Day to Labor Day," she wrote.

Davis Park Association president Mary Parker called the surcharge "an inequitable tax imposed on a small part of the population . . . but intended to benefit all users of areas protected by the Marine Bureau."

This is not the first time the county has tried to raise revenue from ferry services.

The county, facing budget deficits in 1990, considered earmarking a portion of ferry tickets for the police district, Paul Sabatino, the legislature's top lawyer from 1984 until 2004, said Tuesday. That plan failed because legal and political objections were raised, he said, and there was opposition from the riders and ferry companies.

"It is legally possible to bring in such a measure, but there are several steps required ahead of imposing and collecting such a surcharge, and it would have to be applied on a uniform basis across all county-regulated ferry operators," Sabatino said.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone's spokeswoman, said Tuesday night that county officials were reviewing the proposed surcharge and the concerns.

With Paul LaRocco


Details of the proposed surcharge plan

WHAT Charge each rider on a ferry to and from Fire Island an additional 25 cents that can be passed on to Suffolk County.

WHY To help raise revenue as the county faces a $530-million budget gap

HOW MUCH The county estimates it could raise as much as $750,000 a year off the measure.


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