When it comes to budgeting, Nassau County is playing three-card monte with its residents, while Suffolk County is engaging in a shell game. The methods are slightly different, but in each county, elected officials are managing to hike revenues far more than the property tax cap would allow by increasing how much they charge residents in crafty ways, without officially piercing the cap. It’s a masterful trick, inflating revenues while deflating outrage.
Nassau’s unspecified fee hikes
In Nassau, the key for 2018, as it has been in recent years, is huge fee hikes. County Executive Edward Mangano has submitted a $3 billion budget with a property tax increase of just 0.8 percent, well below the state’s 1.84 percent tax cap baseline for municipalities. But it also includes $60 million in fee increases, especially on every aspect of a real estate transaction. Mangano’s blueprint calls for hiking the already outrageous tax verification fee of $355 and the block map fee of $300 by $100 each to raise $25 million. And it calls for another $35 million in new revenue by upping the $55 surcharge on traffic tickets, a gimmick the county put in place last year. Mangano, under federal indictment and on his way out the door after two terms, didn’t even bother to specify exactly how much that increase ought to be. He punted it to legislators, who have to seek re-election in November. Mangano last year got just the $55 addition to traffic tickets after first asking for $105 fees on both traffic and parking citations.
It would take a property-tax hike of at least 7 percent to raise the same amount of money. Doing it through fees is political arrogance, a way of saying that most taxpayers don’t get the trick, and can’t follow the queen.
Suffolk County’s prestidigitation
In Suffolk, the general property tax fund is tiny and hikes do not reap big bucks, so the action is in the police district property tax fund. County Executive Steve Bellone’s $3 billion budget proposes to hike that levy by 4.85 percent — after it rose almost 4 percent this year. But the increases didn’t exceed the property tax cap either year, because . . . magic! OK, it’s not really magic. The hikes are below the cap because the law sayschanges in each of various tax levies taken all together decide whether the cap has been pierced. So in 2018, Suffolk would legally be able to raise the police district tax by 4.85 percent without exceeding the cap because the hike would be offset by a lower tax for Southwest Sewer District residents.
That works out pretty well if you’re a taxpayer in the Towns of Babylon, Islip or the part of Huntington in both the sewer and police districts. But if you live in Smithtown, Brookhaven or the part of Huntington not in the sewer district, you’re looking at a big tax hike that doesn’t exceed the tax cap because other county residents, in the sewer district, got a tax cut you’ll never see.
Keep your eye on the pea. It’s easy, you’ll see!
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In both counties, the financial situation is becoming slightly less dire. Sales-tax revenue is increasing and staff cuts and cost controls have helped trim what were colossal deficits down to merely large ones. Suffolk also has increased fees during Bellone’s tenure, and Nassau has increased property taxes during Mangano’s. And both could argue that they simply need more revenue to deal with rising costs and provide services residents want. But the endless fee hikes and complex maneuvers feel like tricks, meant not just to separate residents from their money, but to keep them from bellowing about it, too.