Long Island has found a cash cow — traffic and parking tickets — to pay for services, materials and salaries, state and local figures show.
Traffic court fines and fees from towns, villages and Suffolk and Nassau counties totaled $146 million last year, up from about $104 million five years ago, according to the state comptroller's office.
The Island is home to 10 of New York's top 25 revenue-generating town and village traffic courts. East Hampton is highest on the list — at No. 4 — with $3.3 million, the state said.
Municipal officials said the revenue was the upshot of effective enforcement. Police and parking enforcement agents, they said, were simply doing their jobs, which is to keep order and protect the public.
“I think you get a fine if you deserve it,” said Patricia O’Byrne, the Great Neck Plaza clerk-treasurer. “It’s a way to make sure there’s public safety. And maybe it’s better that all our revenues are not based on property taxes.”
Both the Suffolk and Nassau police departments are steadfast that their officers write tickets to keep the roadways safe, not to fill the coffers. They point out that an increase in summonses translates to a decrease in crashes and fatalities.
"Traffic summons are issued to drivers that violate the vehicle and traffic law to act as a deterrent and to educate drivers," said Patrick Ryder, Nassau's police commissioner. "Although revenue is generated by summonses as part of the deterrent, in no way do officers write summonses just to generate revenue.”
In a statement, Suffolk County police said it "continues to implement a robust plan to ensure the reduction of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities."
The department's strategy includes increased patrols, enhanced enforcement on the roads and safe driving education programs.
"The direct correlation between the increase of summons the Department has issued and the decreases in motor vehicle incidents in Suffolk County shows that our initiatives are working," the statement said.
Those who get a ticket are outraged about paying a fine and fees that can add up to hundreds of dollars. Kathleen Owens of Mineola paid $660 for two lane-change tickets — and that was after the prosecutor knocked down the charges to parking violations.
“That is shocking for failing to put a blinker on,” she said
The sticker shock, though, isn't just with drivers. A growing number of lawmakers on Long Island are pushing back against fee creep.
"People are fed up," said Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). "It's nothing more than raising taxes under the guise of fees."
Long Island has nearly 100 village and town courts that handle traffic and parking violations.
Those courts combined took in $40 million last year, compared with $37.9 million five years ago, state figures show. Most of the money comes from parking and traffic tickets, but the courts also take in a small amount from fines and fees for offenses such as sanitation and building code violations.
The geographic areas that aren't covered by the town and village courts fall under the jurisdiction of the county traffic courts.
Nassau traffic court revenue jumped to $73 million last year from $52 million in 2013, a roughly 40 percent increase that county spokesman Michael Martino attributed in large part to red-light cameras.
Suffolk's traffic court generated $33 million last year, compared with $27 million in 2014, the first full year it was up and running. The figures don't include revenue from Suffolk's red-light program, which generated $27.6 million in 2017, county figures show.
In 2015, Suffolk cracked down on moving violations to make the roads safer, said county spokesman Jason Elan. Consequently, crashes and fatalities went down and revenue increased, he said.
Drivers get hit with fees from all sides. Take, for example, what a first-time speeder will pay in Suffolk traffic court.
The state-imposed fine for driving 60 mph an hour in a 30-mph zone ranges from a minimum of $90 to $180 to a maximum of $300 to $600, depending on whether the violation occurred in a work zone or a school zone.
The Department of Motor Vehicles also adds 6 points to the driver's license, which can be suspended if the total hits 11 points in 18 months.
New York tacks on another $300 for the points. The state's final blow is a $93 surcharge that it shares with the county: $88 to New York, $5 to the county. Suffolk adds its own driver-responsibility fee of $55.
Last year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone proposed doubling the driver-responsibility fee to $110, which he estimated would raise $5.5 million a year to help close a $135 million structural deficit. He pulled the plug hours before county lawmakers were set to consider the hike for the fourth time. A handful of country legislators, including Trotta of Fort Salonga, balked.
“The fees already in place are high to begin with," Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) said at the time. "To increase them further would be an additional burden on the taxpayers.”
This year, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran suggested raising the fees on a $50 red-light camera ticket to help close an estimated $105 million budget gap. The $55 public-safety fee and the $45 driver-responsibility fee bring Nassau's total to $150.
Suffolk, in turn, puts a $30 administrative fee on each of its red-light tickets, bringing the final amount to $80.
Like Bellone, Curran met bipartisan resistance and her proposal never came to a vote. The county's presiding officer, Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), called for a reduction in fees.
“The fees are too high," Nicolello said. "I would like to see them peeled back as soon as we can do so, without causing a budget crisis in the county.”
In legislative meetings, Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) described the fees as “a money grab.”
The village view
Great Neck Plaza doesn't have a lot of residents, about 7,000. And it didn't make the top 25 revenue-generating town and village traffic courts.
But last year's total of $699,000 accounts for 11 percent of overall revenues because the village is bustling on weekdays since it has a train station and a vibrant commercial district, said O’Byrne, the clerk-treasurer.
Plenty of tickets get written for parking violations.
"If we did not do the enforcement, our businesses would have no parking," she said. "This is not just a village with single family homes; it's a busy, busy downtown."
Mineola came in No. 12 on the top 25 list, taking in $2 million last year, numbers show. The total accounts for 8 percent of overall revenues, according to the village.
Like Great Neck Plaza, Mineola sees its population of 19,600 more than double on weekdays because of the train station, hospital and county court complex, said Village Clerk Joseph Scalero.
Mineola hasn't upped fees lately or expanded its no-parking areas so the higher revenue must means more people violated the law, he said.
"If there has been an increase year to year, I would surmise that it is due to increased violations, i.e. more people violating parking regulations," he said.
East Hampton placed highest on the list at No. 4, pulling in $3.3 million last year. Of the total, the town kept $1.2 million and distributed the rest to East Hampton Village, Suffolk and the state, said budget officer Len Bernard.
Last year, less than 5 percent of municipalities with a population over 5,000 nationwide received 5 percent or more of their revenues from fines and fees, a federal study found.
Municipalities that depend too much on fines and fees put themselves at risk, said Joshua House, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based advocacy group.
“You have to fine people breaking the law to keep the city afloat,” House said. “Your city is in danger of going bankrupt if everybody starts obeying the law.”
Cutting a deal
Plea bargains are common in Long Island's traffic courts, attorneys and judges say. They keep the wheels of justice moving, saving prosecutors and defendants the time and costs of a trial. And they keep the cash registers humming.
Still, officers of the court see the deal-making as a way to expedite the process — not as a way to bring in the money faster.
“I don’t believe the purpose is revenue generation,” said acting State Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Bogle, who supervises Nassau’s 64 village courts. "It's a fairness and speedy trial issue."
In the Lynbrook Village Court, Justice William J. McLaughlin sees roughly 100 cases on traffic court night. He estimates three go to trial; the rest are settled with plea bargains.
"If you had to try every case," McLaughlin said, "you wouldn't get through a fifth of the court calendar."
Suffolk settles about half of its traffic tickets with a plea bargain, said Paul Margiotta, executive director of the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.
For Margiotta, the traffic court isn't a money machine. The fees collected, he said, do two important things: Pay the resources that the county expends on traffic violations — from the police officer who writes the ticket to the judge who hears the case — and deter drivers from breaking the law.
“If we give you a high fine," he said, "it’s because what you’ve done is serious and we don’t want to see it happen again.”
Jeremy Rodriguez, 19, of Valley Stream, took his high speeding fine philosophically, but not happily.
Rodriguez went to Lynbrook Village Court to settle a ticket for driving 53 mph in a 30-mph zone. The violation carried 6 points. The prosecutor offered a reduced charge, failure to yield, and he took it.
The fine and fees amounted to $243 and the points totaled three.
“I mean it could have been worse,” he said. “More points, more money . . . Just let it go by.”
Owens, the Mineola driver, broke the law — twice on the same trip.
She failed to signal when she turned on to an entrance ramp to the Long Island Expressway and when she merged on to the expressway itself.
The first ticket carried a $150 fine, plus a $93 state surcharge. The fine for the second violation increased to $300, plus the $93 state surcharge. The total: $636. Each violation also meant two points added to her license.
At Suffolk's traffic court, a prosecutor offered to knock down the charges to parking violations that don't carry points. The cost: $660 — about the same as the cost for the signal violations.
To Owens, the plea bargain didn't seem like much of a deal. But worried about the points, which often translate to a higher insurance rate, she paid the fine.
"I was so mad," said Owens, 59. "I felt like I was pressured. It's a racket."
New York loses millions of dollars a year when local prosecutors offer lesser charges because the violations are no longer state offenses — and much of the money stays with the towns, villages and counties.
Margiotta, the Suffolk traffic chief, is forthright about plea bargains.
Before Suffolk created its traffic court five years ago, for example, the state handled the violations — and kept 87 percent of the revenue and sent 13 percent to the county. Now, the bigger share goes to the county, he said.
"Suffolk County taxpayers were paying the police and everything that goes into a ticket, but the state was keeping most of the money," Margiotta said about the revenue split before 2013.
In his 2013-14 budget proposal, laid out months before the Suffolk traffic court was up and running, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pointed out that plea bargains on speeding tickets alone cost the state $58 million a year. He proposed making up part of the loss with an $80 surcharge on speeding plea bargains.
Town and village leaders statewide opposed the plea bargain surcharge, which failed in Albany.
The state still has a surcharge, though. George Godinho of East Meadow paid it when he was in Lynbrook's traffic court.
"I think the surcharges are ridiculous," Godinho said. "They should be lower, or scaled . . . It felt like an extra tax."
Godinho, 40, came in with a speeding ticket and left with a failure-to-yield ticket. Instead of six points, he added three to his license. The final cost stood at $243, including the $93 state surcharge.
His wallet hurt, but it was what it was. He had broken the law.
"I can't complain," he said. "I got nothing to argue with."
Long Island is home to 10 of New York's top 25 revenue-generating town and village traffic courts.
1. Harrison, Westchester County, $3,933,115.00
2. Amherst, Erie County, $3,423,518.64
3. Wallkill, Orange County, $3,317,544.27
4. East Hampton, Suffolk County, $3,273,860.26
5. Port Chester, Westchester, $3,264,815.40
6. Freeport, Nassau County, $2,857,393.00
8. Southampton, Suffolk, $2,569,761.50
9. Lynbrook, Nassau, $2,344,853.00
10. Hempstead, Nassau, $2,200,814.00
12. Mineola, Nassau, $2,095,749.99
14. Valley Stream, Nassau, $2,034,535.06
18.Garden City, Nassau, $1,700,656.00
23. Cedarhurst, Nassau, $1,523,043.72
25. Rockville Centre, Nassau, $1,440,821.00