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Suffolk County could see $10 million budget hole due to error

Steve Bellone in his office on Nov. 4,

Steve Bellone in his office on Nov. 4, 2015, a day after winning re-election for Suffolk County executive. Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

A bureaucratic error could create a nearly $10 million budget hole for Suffolk County, but it also has inadvertently given county drivers a six-month reprieve from higher fees for car and truck registrations.

The Suffolk County Legislature voted to increase the surcharge on Suffolk car and truck registrations so it would take effect late last year. But the state Department of Motor Vehicles has not yet begun levying the new fee, and officials differ over who is at fault.

So far, the county has lost $6.3 million in revenues, a number that could reach nearly $10 million by June when county officials say the fee may finally be put in place. A spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state has offered to help offset the loss but gave no specifics.

The increased surcharge, first proposed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in his 2016 operating budget, was scheduled to take effect January 1, and was expected to bring in $14,854,690 annually.

After sales tax shortfalls late last year, the county legislature moved up the starting date so the surcharge would start when the local law was filed with the Secretary of State on Nov. 25, 2015. The goal was to get an extra month of revenue, totaling $1.584 million for December.

Under the county law, the registration surcharge is to triple from $5 to $15 for cars weighing under 3,500 pounds. For autos over 3,500 pounds and commercial vehicles, the fees will double from $15 to $30.

The revenue shortfall came to light with the release of the official statement for Wednesday’s sale of county bonds. The statement blames a “clerical error by the state” for the problem.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said only that the existence of the new law “was not communicated to the Department of Motor Vehicles.” He added that the county “perhaps” should have done that “just to check all the boxes.”

Laz Benitez, spokesman for the Department of State, said his office filed the county law properly. Department officials said their only “statutory obligation” was to post the law on the Department of State website.

Joseph Morrissey, spokesman for the state DMV, could not say when the agency became aware of the Suffolk problem. Morrissey said the department on Wednesday will publish the county’s local law as a regulation in the state register, as required. There is a 45-day comment period before the rule can become official. Morrissey said he could not comment on how much longer it would take for the higher fee to take effect.

Schneider said county budget aides only learned of the problem earlier this month after noticing that surcharge revenues were flat, despite approval of a higher fee.

The bond statement disclosed that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office on March 14, “received assurances that the state would assist the county to mitigate any losses”. A spokeswoman for the governor said Tuesday that, “the state is working with the county, exploring ways to rectify the issue and mitigate losses,” but could not offer specifics.

Schneider said that despite the delay, “the important thing is now all the wires are connected to work for the earliest possible implementation.”

Presiding Office DuWayne Gregory called the mistake an “unforced error” that will make it “more difficult” to keep the county budget in balance.

Gregory (D-Amityville) said that while Bellone has not yet proposed a way to plug the hole, he expects the issue to arise when budget analysts update lawmakers on the county’s finances in May.

“It’s just another example of how they do things by the seat of their pants,” Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said of the Bellone administration.

“However, every so often incompetence benefits the taxpayer and this is one of those cases,” Cilmi said.

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