Administrative fees are a necessary evil. Most people have at one time or another paid a fee to a government agency for things like building permits, licenses, filing a deed or getting a copy of a document. The administrative fee typically covers the cost of the service provided. Historically fees have not been seen as a way to generate income or balance a budget. What has been true historically is not true today according to Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta.
Legislator Trotta has not been shy in expressing his concern that the Bellone administration has been using administrative fees as a way to generate money to help balance the County’s budget. According to Legislator Trotta the county has raised fees on recording mortgage records - created a mandatory registry wich includes a $50 residential and $100 fee for business alarms. Last week the Ways and Means Committee discharged a bill that will go before the full legislature this week and is is expected to pass doubling the administrative fee on traffic and parking tickets.
According to Trotta the fees go above and beyond the costs of running the programs. The fees says Trotta are a “backdoor tax” that is being used to pay the costs of police contracts.
Is Trotta correct and does it matter?
It seems that not a day goes by without some governmental entity telling us that their actions are necessary and too often we are told it is for our own good. Taking money because you can is bad enough, but telling tax payers it is for their own good is too often a false fact.
Recently, County Executive Bellone’s spokesperson Vanessa Baird-Streeter issued a statement to Newsday reporter David M. Schwartz (Bill to double $55 fee on tickets advances in Suffolk), “This fee can be avoided altogether by obeying traffic law, that the way to avoid the administrative fees for parking and traffic tickets is drive according to the law.” Legislator Flemming (Southampton) in the same article suggested “high fees could help discourage unsafe driving. ‘We have to consider public safety and reduce the carnage we see on highways and roads.” That is one rationale but the reality is many of the people receiving the tickets are working people with little money to spare. They get their tickets as they head out to the store to buy groceries or school supplies, they head home to meet the school bus or to pick up children at day care they are not consciously thinking about breaking rules. Deterence only works when someone is concious of doing wrong. People will be hurt by the additional fees. The question is not whether or not a ticket, which is the punitive part, is warranted it is a question of whether the ticket recipient should be an ATM for county finances.
Last year the county legislated an alarm program (for residents and businesses served by SCPD) the program Alarm Management Program of Suffolk (AMPS) was represented as a way to control the number of false alarms requiring a police response. In 2015 the Suffolk County Police Department responded to 97,000 false alarms According to the county close to $2 million dollars was spent responding to false alarms and often times the alarms came from the same address. The fee of $50 for residential alarms and $100 for business alarms is expected to raise as much as $6 million dollars. The intended purpose of the registry is to minimize the number of false alarms and to charge residents who have multiple false alarm calls. The problem is that many if not most false alarms are the result of an unintended action, like leaving a pet roaming around a sensored area. According to safeties.com an unintended result of programs that seek to weed out the false alarms is fewer people using their alarm which may lead to more burglaries. A false alarm is already unpleasant for the great majority of owners, embarrassing and sometimes frightening. Maliciously pulling a fire alarm or calling 911 is a different issue.
One other troubling comment to come out of the David M. Schwartz’s article comes from Ms. Baird-Streeter who said “The fee hike will cover administrative costs associated with issuing the tickets and brings Suffolk in line with a newly approved hike in Nassau County.” Parity with Nassau County is really not the path that Suffolk County residents should aspire to be on.
In January 2017 Legislator Trotta held a press conference during which he proposed capping administrative fees. Trotta contends that the Cuomo tax cap has been successful in keeping costs down for tax payers. A fee cap in Suffolk County would limit the “backdoor tax” that unfairly targets those who are required to use a county service.
What legislators do does matter. Declining to raise taxes and raising administative fees is not the solution to the County’s fiscal problem. Raising fees on traffic and parking tickets and telling people that if they would only behave is an insult. Suggesting that higher administrative fees will promote safer driving should be backed up with facts. Suffolk County residents NEED to speak up and let their legislators know their thoughts.