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Boat mooring fee moves forward, new parks and recreational program fee increases to take effect Jan. 1

Huntington Town Hall. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington’s elected officials have adopted a $199.7 million operating budget for 2019 on a party-line vote at their Nov. 20 meeting, as Republicans and Democrats were split over town staffing changes and increases to fees.

The adopted 2019 budget raises $122.8 million through the tax levy, roughly $3 million more than the current year, representing a 2.53 percent increase. It falls under New York State’s mandated tax levy increase cap by approximately $80,0000, including $371,000 in rollover savings from 2018 and accounts for growth in the town’s tax base valued at roughly $400,000.

Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) amended the 2019 budget prior to approval to reinstate funding for four legislative secretaries — one for each town council member — which had been slashed from his first proposal. Lupinacci said a $200,000 federal grant received for the Huntington Youth Bureau’s drug and alcohol programs also helped free up funds.

I think it’s a good budget that will be very responsible to constituents that keeps within the tax cap…” 

— Chad Lupinacci

“I think it’s a good budget that will be very responsible to constituents that keeps within the tax cap, and it had good planning for the future in capital expenses and programs, so we can continue to hold our triple AAA credit rating that is very important,” he said.

Democratic council members Mark Cuthbertson and Joan Cergol voted against the supervisor’s 2019 operating budget, arguing it was too much for Huntington’s taxpayers.

“The supervisor is asking residents to accept a double whammy: increased taxes and high, in some cases, first-ever fees for services they rightly feel are already funded by their taxes,” Cergol said.

Cergol proposed a series of changes to the supervisor’s 2019 tentative budget Nov. 20, seeking to reduce the tax levy increase from 2.53 down to 1.85 percent. Her proposed changes would have eliminated 12 town jobs — three confidential secretaries, a chief of staff, three executive assistants and five deputy department directors — many of which were created in August. The councilwoman said slashing these positions would save the town approximately $800,000 in salaries, increasing to nearly $1 million when including the cost of health care insurance benefits.

The supervisor is asking residents to accept a double whammy: increased taxes and high, in some cases, first-ever fees for services they rightly feel are already funded by their taxes.”

— Joan Cergol

“Naturally, I would prefer to have no tax increase at all, but I well understand we have contractual obligation expenses and a 9 percent increase in health care insurance costs the town has no control over,” Cergol said. “For the sake of every taxpayer, we have an obligation to exercise control when it comes to the hiring of personnel, specifically jobs that are exempt from civil service, otherwise known as patronage jobs.”

She also sought to strike and remove the town’s plans to implement a boat mooring fee in Huntington Harbor. Cuthbertson voiced his support for Cergol’s proposed amendments.

“At a time when homeowner’s budgets are squeezed, and they have lost most of the state and local deduction on their income taxes, the Republican administration should not be asking for increases that serve no purpose other than doling out patronage,” the councilman said.

Despite his support, Cergol’s first proposal to slash $1 million from the budget failed by a 3-2 party-line vote. Her second proposal to eliminate $200,000 by cutting staff positions and the proposed boat mooring fee failed to find any support among the board members.

Lupinacci defended his staffing decisions, stating the Town of Huntington will have less full-time employees going forward next year, and changes were in line with his goals that include improving transparency and efficiency by cutting “red tape.”

New 2019 Park & Recreational Fees
Below are few of the new 2019 park and recreational fees
Adult Resident Recreational ID Card, 2 years      $40
(new) Adult Resident Recreational ID Card, 1 year     $25
Resident Recreational ID Card – Senior/Disabled      $15
Golf Card, valid for 1 year     $45
Golf Card, every 2 years        $60
Beach Resident Daily Permit      $30
Non-Resident Daily Permit         $75

“I think these are all worthwhile goals that we will continue to accomplish, and to meet these goals we need to have staffing changes,” he said.

The board also voted 3-2 to increase and add several additional park and recreational fees next year. Some changes in the legislation include increasing the cost of a two-year resident recreational card from $20 to $40, increasing the cost of a daily beach pass for Huntington residents from $25 to $30, and implementing new special event permit fees for John J. Walsh Memorial Park in East Northport, Peter A. Nelson Park in Huntington and picnic site fees for Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo Memorial Spray Park in Elwood.

The registration costs for several town-run summer programs including Camp Bright Star, Teen Leadership and preschool camps were increased as well.

“We’re always looking at and reviewing fees every year as part of the budgeting process to ensure the fees actually cover associated program costs,” the supervisor said. “We revise rates for various programs and actions, to make sure taxpayers are not on the hook for programs they don’t use.”

Lupinacci said costs of the town’s recreational ID card fee, $20, had not been increased in more than a decade, and the new $40 fee more accurately reflects its “true value going forward.” The town will also be offering a new one-year recreational ID card for $20.

Cergol and Cuthbertson were against increasing recreational fees, which will take effect Jan. 1.

Suffolk residents are suing the county, overseen by Executive Steve Bellone, for what they deem to be illegal fees. File photo

By Kevin Redding

An upstate New York legal group that helps residents stand up against improper actions by their government recently set its sights on Suffolk County, whose hike in illegal fees in the past two years is the focus of a class-action lawsuit.

On Oct. 24, the Government Justice Center, an Albany-based nonprofit that offers pro bono representation to New York residents seeking to “fight city hall,” filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court on behalf of five Suffolk County residents against the county, saying its abundance of assessment fees are “unauthorized taxes.”

The plaintiffs — homeowners living in Melville, Kings Park, Commack, Calverton and Shirley — face increasingly expensive fees for filing real estate documents, namely tax map verifications, which raked in $66 million this year, that far surpass the county’s operating budget of $1.2 million to perform the transactions through its Real Property Tax Service Agency, the suit alleges.

Between 2015 and 2017, mortgage recording fees and tax map verification fees imposed by the county jumped from $60 to $200 per land parcel, with an additional $300 slapped on for every mortgage recording instrument used. The revenue from the fees contributes to the county’s general fund.

According to the complaint, the county passed legislation to enforce these “backdoor taxes” on a certain subset of residents — in this case, homeowners — to bear the county’s burden as it was “unwilling to rein in its spending or face the political consequences of raising taxes to pay for general fund expenses.”

But, under state law, local fees are not allowed to exceed the cost of service or be used
to offset the revenue of government functions.

The homeowners are now calling on the county to stop imposing the illegal fees or at least reduce them to more closely match the $1.2 million service cost, and to refund them a portion of the real estate document fees. The county is currently being subpoenaed.

“It’s important that residents get the opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Cameron MacDonald, the executive director of the GJC. “The county is not supposed to be raising revenue through unauthorized taxes in the form of excessive fees. They need to either pass a tax that affects everyone or cut its spending.”

Ahead of the Suffolk County Legislature’s budget vote for 2018, which passed Nov. 8, MacDonald said he and his group called on legislators, to no avail, to eliminate a total $102 million in fees that generate revenue above the cost of the departments that collect them.

Mike Armstrong, the director of field operations for Reclaim New York Initiative, a nonpartisan group with representation on the GJC’s board which launched the Fight the Fees campaign to end illegal fees across the state, has been active in gaining public support of the lawsuit.

Armstrong compared the gradual increase of fees on taxpayers to “the difference between getting small cuts on your arm to having it chopped off entirely.

“The county talks about wanting to keep people here while they’re pushing them out the door with fees and taxes,” Armstrong said, adding that while tax increases are never popular, it’s at least honest compared to these fees. “I feel bad for young couples who want to buy a house that are now paying that mortgage fee. I feel bad for senior citizens who are closing out their mortgages and then are faced with an  exorbitant fee. It’s an issue that’s impacting people in a really dramatic way.”

During a vote last December to adopt the 2017 county budget,  Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) defended the fee increases, saying residents will not leave Suffolk County because of a few additional hundreds of dollars.

“I don’t think anyone is going to move to Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona or anywhere else because of $300,” Gregory said regarding the verification fee. “I think it’s going to cost more to relocate than the
increase in this fee.”

Among few voices of opposition on the Legislature is Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who, during the meeting to adopt the 2017 county budget, called it “death by a thousand knives.” He warned of an inevitable deficit in the county’s budget.

“The mismanagement of Suffolk County is heading us down the path of bankruptcy,” Trotta said. “They’re going to lose the lawsuits and they’re going to have to refund the fees and stop spending money. There’s going to be a huge hole in the budget no matter what.”

Jason Elan, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone (D), addressed the lawsuit in an emailed statement.

“This is a politically motivated lawsuit filed by Albany insiders who lack any understanding on how government costs are apportioned, yet have no problem saddling taxpayers with the cost of fighting this completely frivolous complaint,” Elan’s statement read.

The state supreme court has since ruled similar fees in Nassau unconstitutional.

“This is a major victory for taxpayers, homeowners, businesses and any New Yorker who has been forced to pay an illegal fee,” Reclaim New York said in an email. “Every government around the state should get the message loud and clear. Nassau and Suffolk legislators have knowingly been stealing from residents with illegal fees ­— it’s theft. It is time to end illegal fees across New York.”

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