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Fee cuts are a priority

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran makes an announcement

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran makes an announcement with her 2022 budget proposal on Tuesday in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

When it comes to buying the votes of residents with their own money, there are no clean hands among Nassau County’s Republican and Democratic elected officials. With an eye toward county elections less than two months away, both parties want to toss a few bucks back in taxpayer pockets.

County Executive Laura Curran's proposal to temporarily cut taxes by $150 million, divided over several years, has merit. But it's the Republican cuts to some of the county’s outsized fees at a cost of $100 million annually, while just as cynical in its timing and presentation as Curran's plan, that should be prioritized.

Monday, the county legislature’s presiding officer, Richard Nicolello, announced a plan to eliminate the $355 administrative fee charged to verify that a property’s section, lot and block are correct. A state Supreme Court judge recently ruled that this fee was "an unlawful and unconstitutional tax," and although the county is appealing, state law says such fees can only cover the cost of the service.

In Nassau, the fees are so oversized that the county clerk's office is projected to bring in $70 million in 2021, on a budget of $7 million.

Nassau lost a similar case in 2018 when commercial property owners sued the county over fines for failing to file financial information. The decision found those fines to be an unconstitutional tax. The other fees Republicans proposed eliminating are the $55 public safety fee on most traffic violations, and one for recording mortgages, which they want reduced from $300 to $50.

All three cuts got through a GOP-controlled legislative committee and could be approved on Sept. 27. These fees were instituted by former Republican County Executive Edward Mangano and many of these same Republicans lawmakers, so they could tout the lack of tax increases while keeping the county afloat. They were wrong then, but are doing the right thing now that the political winds have shifted.

Curran, a Democrat seeking a second term, hopes to garner approval from taxpayers by giving them cash. In May, she announced plans to use $100 million from the federal COVID-19 bailout to fund $375 one-time checks to many county households. This week, she proposed $150 million in temporary property tax relief over six years. The checks are transparently political but tax cuts, even temporary ones, are generally wise in Nassau.

Raising money via excessive fees, especially ones that make it harder for young and low-income buyers to purchase homes and that turn minor traffic violations into budget-busters, is bad policy. Eventually, the courts will throw out the fees and budgets relying on them will suffer. Better to eliminate them now.

Doing that shouldn't mean Curran's temporary tax cut is unaffordable. If it does, she can forgo her proposed $45 million in new annual public safety spending that's as political as her $375 giveaway.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.