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Suffolk traffic ticket fee increase has support to pass

Presiding Officer and Suffolk County Legis. DuWayne Gregory,

Presiding Officer and Suffolk County Legis. DuWayne Gregory, seated, speaks with Legis. William Spencer during a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Smithtown Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

County lawmakers have resurrected a proposal to double the administrative fee on Suffolk traffic and parking tickets from $55 to $110, and it now appears to have the support to pass.

The Legislature had dropped County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal earlier this year, which would raise $5.5 million annually amid a backlash against a series of fee increases.

But Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) said Tuesday he’s now a “yes” vote for a county facing a severe budget deficit. A vote on the fee increase is scheduled for September 6 in Riverhead. The $55 fee increase wouldn’t apply to the $30 administrative fee on red light camera tickets.

Spencer said he committed to vote for the fee hike after opposing a pay freeze for political appointees and prosecutors last month.

“It was a choice between two evils,” Spencer said. “At least you can voluntarily choose not to run a stoplight.”

Republicans blasted the proposal, saying the poorest would have the hardest time affording the fees.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said there needs to be a “global solution” that includes short-term cost savings from unions.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the fees on tickets, which can cost hundreds of dollars, are “a backdoor tax increase.” He has sponsored a bill to require department heads to justify the costs of fee increases.

Under state law, the fees are only supposed to cover the costs to run the agency, said Alec Slatky, a policy liaison with AAA Northeast. But the existing fee already outpaces the costs to run the agency, he said.

In 2016, the county spent $12 million to run the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. The agency raised $53.6 million that year, including almost $20 million in fees.

“Traffic court should not be used as a cash cow,” Slatky said in a phone interview.

Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said, “It is encouraging to see that legislators understand the importance of taking decisive action to address the County’s budget challenges.”

Lawmakers in a 5-13 vote Tuesday evening also rejected a request by Bellone’s administration to apply for a state grant for a bike-share program.

Jonathan Keyes, director of downtown and transit-oriented development, estimated the county would ask for $500,000 — matched with county money or sponsorships — to place bikes near train stations at sites throughout the county.

Lawmakers said the county couldn’t afford the bike-share program, which had been heavily promoted by Bellone.

“I don’t support bonding a dollar for a bike, knowing we’re in a budget deficit. We’re in a fiscal dystopia and playing like there’s rainbows and unicorns,” Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said.

Elan said the county would continue to work on a bike-sharing plan, which the administration said could help promote tourism and downtowns.

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