New York State enacted a property-tax cap in 2011 to force municipalities and school districts to control spending and stem constant increases in costs that far exceeded the growth in residents’ incomes. The cap limited increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, starting with budgets for 2012. And with school districts, it mostly worked because they can’t use borrowed money for operations or impose new fees.
But a look at Nassau and Suffolk counties’ budgets for 2017, and for recent years, shows that they are not living within the tax cap, even though they’ve never officially exceeded it. Instead, they are subverting the cap and drastically altering the way their governments are funded by creating huge fee increases and borrowing to cover spending.
Nassau’s proposed 2017 budget, parts of which are still being batted back and forth between the county legislature and County Executive Edward Mangano, includes about $77 million in fee increases. The bulk of that would come from a new $105 fee on parking and traffic violations. There also are about $13 million in new and increased business license fees, and, at the very least, $60 million in borrowing for operations.
Suffolk County’s proposed 2017 budget, which the legislature approved with a few changes that County Executive Steve Bellone is considering, includes about $42 million from fee increases. The bulk of that sum comes from a $300 fee for new mortgages.
Among other increases, the county also doubled administrative fees on moving violations not issued by red-light cameras from $30 to $60. And the budget also includes, at the very least, $63 million in borrowing for operations.
In principle, fees charged by municipalities should reflect the cost of providing those services. In addition, borrowing for operations for deficit spending violates accounting principles.
But since 2011, both counties have used both methods to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars without piercing the property-tax cap, at least partially pulling the wool over the eyes of the taxpayers who fund budgets and the voters who empower elected officials. Also bamboozled is the state, which sends taxpayers refunds when county property-tax hikes don’t exceed the cap, even when Nassau and Suffolk hike fees and borrow.
The state should amend its property-tax rebates so they are withheld from residents whose municipalities hike fees dramatically or borrow for operating costs. And Nassau and Suffolk need to get their expenses in line or have the guts to raise taxes to fund those expenses.
— The editorial board
Notable fee increases by Nassau and Suffolk counties
2016: Nassau triples county tax map verification fee to $225 and doubles county clerk block recording fee to $300, both related to real estate transactions. Suffolk increases vehicle registration fee by $20 for small vehicles and $40 for large, and hikes its mortgage-recording fee from $60 to $200.
2015: Nassau hikes its fee on 911 calls from 35 cents to $1. Suffolk adds a $30 fee to red-light camera violations.
2013: Nassau imposes fees of $500 for two-year licenses on wide variety of small businesses. Suffolk creates a $100 annual fee for taxi and livery vehicles.
2012: Nassau increases ambulance surcharges to $999 or $1,199, depending on the call, up more than 100 percent in two years.