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Friday
Jan122018

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Pay Attention NYS Law "Fees Must Not Exceed Cost Of Service"

 

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

A decision last month by a state Supreme Court justice that Nassau County was imposing an “illegal tax” on commercial property owners is seen “absolutely” by Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta as a sign that a class action lawsuit brought against increased real property fees charged by Suffolk County will also win out. 

If that happens and these and other increased Suffolk fees are ordered refunded, “the county will end up on the brink of bankruptcy,” says Mr. Trotta, who has been highly critical of Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone making use of hiked fees.

The Nassau case involved $36 million in fines charged to property owners who didn’t file financial information with the county assessor. Justice Anthony Marano ruled there wasn’t a “scintilla of evidence” that the fines had anything to do with funding assessment operations in Nassau. Instead, “the bottom line is they are relied on to balance the county’s budget.” 

That’s the same charge in the lawsuit brought against Suffolk in October which focuses on new real property fees imposed by its county government. 

“If Suffolk County wants to raise revenue, it needs to do it legally, not by levying unauthorized taxes through excessive fees on a subset of residents,” says Cameron Mitchell, executive director of the Government Justice Center in Albany and attorney for five Suffolk residents who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

It charges: “Unwilling to rein in its spending or face the political consequences of raising taxes to pay for general fund expenditures, the county passed legislation in 2015 and 2016 imposing unauthorized taxes on county real property owners, labeling the taxes as fees. Each year the county chose to fund budget gaps by raising the fees on tax map verifications performed by the Real Property Tax Service Agency for documents filed with the county. The revenue raised by the agency far exceeds the county’s cost to operate the agency.”

Under state law, the lawsuit maintains, fees must not exceed the cost of service.

It relates how in 2015 Suffolk “in an effort to balance the county’s revenue to spending, the county executive recommended increasing the agency’s [tax map] verification fee to $150 a parcel” from $60. Then the Suffolk Legislature, it goes on, increased that to $200. “The county was not finished,” it says. In 2016 “an additional $300” was added to the “verification fee…for every mortgage filed.” 

“The county knew that it had its home buyers and sellers over a barrel and that it would be unlikely that home buyers would do anything but pay the verification fees,” it says.

Meanwhile, the county’s Real Property Tax Service Agency cost the county $1.2 million last year to operate, it continues, thus the increased fees collected—$66 million in 2017 alone—have overwhelmingly not been for the agency but for general county purposes.

The lawsuit says “it is against equity and good conscience to permit the county to retain the illegal taxes.” It demands Suffolk “refund and repay” the money raised. In the Nassau case, the county is holding off on refunding money pending its appeal.

The office of Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, takes the position that the Suffolk lawsuit is “politically motivated.”

Mr. Trotta, a Republican, has in recent years been blasting the county for increasing fees for a variety of functions. In a legislative debate in 2016, when the additional $300 fee for filing mortgages was passed, he said—and this is pointed to in the lawsuit—“This is nothing more than a tax disguised as a fee. It’s death by a thousand knives.”

Mr. Trotta says increased fees for general county purposes “is not even a grey area. The New York State comptroller has stated you can’t do this, and there is case law stating it can’t be done.”  A retired Suffolk Police detective, Mr. Trotta says: “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

He further cites a statement at a Suffolk Legislature meeting by its counsel, George Nolan, himself a Democrat, that “if a case is brought challenging any fee on this basis, and the court finds it far exceeds the county cost of providing service, there is a good possibility a court would say the fee is excessive.”

As a class action lawsuit, if it is victorious everybody who has paid the increased real property fees could get them refunded. Then Mr. Trotta anticipates more lawsuits “going after every one of the increased fees—and like dominoes, they’ll all go down.” This would mean more refunds and, he says, the specter of bankruptcy for Suffolk County government. 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Elizabeth Cella of Melville, Winifred Esoff of Kings Park, John McCarthy of Commack, Carol Rodgers of Calverton and Nicholas Accardi of Shirley. The first four paid Suffolk’s increased real property fees when they closed out home equity loans “established years before.”

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 

Monday
Jan082018

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - 40 Years Teaching Rewarded By Student Success

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

Karl Grossman

This year 2018 marks my 40th year as a professor of journalism. I started teaching at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury in 1978. Each year I’ve had a couple of hundred students which, times 40, comes to a total of thousands of students. 

We happily recall our teachers, and the opposite is true, too: I fondly recall students—and relish in their successes. As a teacher you get to know your students well. Your lives intertwine. 

Larry Lawson is now director of news and coordinating producer at the New England Sports Network. After I began to teach classes at SUNY/Old Westbury, I started an internship program placing students in media all over Long Island and the rest of the New York Metro Area. I feel internships are vitally important—it’s how I was inspired to go into journalism, an internship as an Antioch College student at the Cleveland Press.

I helped Larry, keenly intelligent and personable, get an internship at WCBS-TV in New York. He did well and then, as he told the story on a visit back to Old Westbury a while back, he was offered a job—but working in the mail room at the CBS network.

He spoke of not wanting this, of seeking to be a producer, and calling his old professor and asking me—I remember the conversation well—what to do. I advised him to take the job as a “foot in the door.” He said that even though but a mail clerk, he was noticed—and taken under the wings of 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley and Andy Rooney. And in short order, this young man “from the projects in Brooklyn,” he noted, was a producer at CBS, then moving on to CNN, Black Entertainment Television and ESPN, and is now at the helm of an important sports network.

There was Sid McCain, daughter of U.S. Senator John McCain. She was my student at Southampton College where, in addition to teaching at SUNY/Old Westbury, I taught for 25 years part-time as an adjunct professor until, sadly, it was shut down.

Sid has courage and sharpness like her dad. She took my Investigative Reporting course and, being an animal-lover, decided to do a hard-hitting expose in the college newspaper on the treatment of test animals in the psychobiology program at the college. The professor who ran the program was furious and went after Sid and me, as advisor to the paper. I recall the times sitting with Sid waiting for a set of tense meetings to begin. In the end, Sid and a free press won. She’s now promotions director at WSME radio in Milwaukee. 

A few weeks ago I received an email from Old Westbury graduate Michael Schuch:

“Mr. Grossman, This is atypical of me to contact one of my professors—or dare I even say mentors. I want to thank you. A long time ago—about 30 years—you suggested that I intern at Cablevision. I don’t know why. It was a surprise to me. Your recommendation gave me the start to a productive career. I finished the internship and realized I had a love for the technical side of the industry. Since then I’ve started a company that is respected as one of the best in the world at what we do. I often reflect and appreciate that without your suggestion—whatever you saw in me—it may have not been possible. I thank you.”

It doesn’t get any better than that for a professor!

Turns out Michael has a company, CMS Audio/Visual, with offices in New York and London and numerous and major global clients.

My former student Michelle Imperato is an anchorwoman at WESH-TV in Orlando, Florida; Ed Easton, Jr. is at WINS radio in New York; last year’s Old Westbury graduate Moses Nunez, Jr. just got a job as a broadcast operations coordinator at NBC in New York; Selena Hill is digital editor of Black Enterprise magazine in New York; Kathryn Menu is editor of the Sag Harbor Express; Dean Harding is at NBC News; Beth Young started and edits the East End Beacon; Tim Gannon is a reporter for the Riverhead News-Review; Pat Rogers is publisher of Hamptons Art Hub; Megan Kapler is a filmmaker in New York; Annette Fuentes has been a reporter for the New York Daily News and an editor at Newsday and is an author; Niclas Gillis, a student at SUNY Old Westbury from Sweden, is a writer and director in New York; Asha Johnson is a videographer at News12 Long Island; Eric Wald is co-publisher of The Waldo Tribune; Annette Hinkle is community news editor at the Shelter Island Reporter. And the list goes on.

Some of my ex-students are in government work. Fran Evans is a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Legislature; Tim Laube was the clerk of the legislature and is now business manager of the Eastport-South Manor School District; Brian Frank is chief environmental analyst for the Town of East Hampton; Jeff Szabo became a deputy Suffolk County executive and since 2010 has been CEO of the Suffolk County Water Authority. I know my Environmental Journalism class Jeff and Brian took has been helpful in their positions. Brian told me it was “the inspiration” for him to get into environmental work. 

Some students, like me, after years in journalism went into teaching it. Claire Serant is at Brooklyn College and Bill O’Connell, a professor of communications at Suffolk Community. 

The years of doing and teaching journalism have been very fulfilling. 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 

Friday
Dec292017

SC Legislature Announces Organizational Meeting January 2, 2018

Suffolk Legislature Sets Organizational Meeting

HAUPPAUGE, N.Y.  –  Suffolk County Legislators will hold their Organizational Meeting on Tuesday, January 2, at 11 a.m. in the Rose Y. Caracappa Legislative Auditorium located at the  William H. Rogers Legislature Building at 725 Veterans Memorial Highway in Hauppauge.

The annual meeting will feature the Presentation of Colors, followed by a performance of the Star Spangled Banner by Patchogue-Medford High School students and an invocation by Rev. Steven J. Hannafin, Pastor of St. Francis De Sales Parish in Patchogue. 

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will offer remarks. Election of a Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer will follow. Ceremonial Oaths will be before Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, Suffolk County District Administrative Judge.

Legislators will appoint a Counsel to the Legislature, Clerk and Chief Deputy Clerk, adopt a schedule for general meetings, and designate depositories and official county newspapers. 

Legislators will also adopt the Rules of the Legislature, sign the official record, lay bills on the table and set the requisite public hearings.

For additional information, please visit www.scnylegislature.us.

Thursday
Dec282017

SCWA Says Good Bye To Sheriff-Elect Dr. Errol Toulon Jr

SCWA Board Member and Suffolk County Sheriff-Elect Dr. Errol Toulon, Jr. after his final Board meeting Thursday, December 21 with (from left) Board Member Mario Mattera, SCWA Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey W. Szabo, Board Chairman James F. Gaughran, Board Member Jane Devine and Board Secretary Patrick G. Halpin. SCWA Wishes a Fond Farewell to Board Member Dr. Errol Toulon, Jr. 

Suffolk County Sheriff-Elect served on SCWA Board since 2010 

The Suffolk County Water Authority honored Board Member Dr. Errol Toulon, Jr., following his final Board Meeting last week. Dr. Toulon, who has been a member of the Board since 2010, will be resigning his post to serve in his new position as Suffolk County Sheriff beginning in January. 

During his time on the Board, Dr. Toulon supported such noteworthy initiatives as the New York State legislation that allows unpaid SCWA customer balances to be placed as liens on property tax bills, which is expected to save SCWA hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in previously uncollectable payments; SCWA’s Advanced Oxidation Process system to remove 1,4-dioxane from groundwater; and maintaining the Authority’s strong record of fiscal responsibility, helping the organization earn two AAA bond ratings in 2016. 

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish for our ratepayers during my time on this Board,” Dr. Toulon said. “It has been an incredible seven years and I would like to thank my colleagues on the Board as well as the entire SCWA staff for their hard work. My experience here has truly been one of the highlights of my career.” 

Before being sworn in as a member of the Board in 2010, Dr. Toulon spent more than 30 years working in the criminal justice system, and was named Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the New York City Correction Department in 2014. A two-time cancer survivor, Dr. Toulon has cited those battles as having inspired him to further dedicate his life to helping others. 

“Our loss is the people of Suffolk County’s gain,” SCWA Board Chairman James F. Gaughran said. “We know Errol will do a terrific job as Sheriff and we wish him well.” 

The Suffolk County Water Authority is an independent public-benefit corporation operating under the authority of the Public Authorities Law of the State of New York. Serving approximately 1.2 million Suffolk County residents, the Authority operates without taxing power on a not-for-profit basis. 

 

Thursday
Dec282017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - 2017 In Review

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

As the year 2017 comes to an end, three major events stand out in this year in Suffolk County: the indictment and resignation of long-time Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota, the results of the election here, and the beginnings of offshore wind development.

The indictment of Suffolk DA Spota is a tragedy for the veteran prosecutor. Of the district attorneys in Suffolk over the past 50 years—and I’ve known every one of them—Mr. Spota stands out to me to be among the best. He was no-nonsense when it came to corruption, of which there has been an enormous amount in Suffolk through the years.

His indictment is rooted in a friendship with someone he, in hindsight, should not have trusted. But Mr. Spota got to know James Burke when Mr. Burke was a teenage witness in 1979 in a matter that Mr. Spota, as head of the DA’s Homicide Bureau, was prosecuting: the murder by suffocation of 13-year-old John Pius in Smithtown.  

Then 14, the young Burke testified at a series of trials in which classmates were charged with killing John Pius by shoving rocks down his throat. 

That experience focused Mr. Burke on becoming a police officer, and police work was in his family already: his father and grandfather were cops in New York City. 

Mr. Burke became a city cop, too, for a year, and then joined the Suffolk County Police Department and rose through the ranks. Meanwhile, a friendship between him and Mr. Spota grew, and in 2002 after Mr. Spota, of Mt. Sinai, was elected Suffolk DA, he named Mr. Burke to head the DA’s squad of detectives. Mr. Burke held that post until becoming chief of department in 2011, its highest uniformed position.

    In 2015, Mr. Burke was arrested at his Smithtown home on federal charges that in the Fourth Precinct station house in Hauppauge, he beat a man who was handcuffed and manacled, who was suspected of breaking into his police vehicle, and then he coerced fellow officers to cover up what he did. 

Mr. Burke pleaded guilty in 2016 and is now imprisoned. Mr. Spota was charged in October by federal authorities, along with Christopher McPartland, the head of his political corruption unit, with obstruction of justice in connection with the cover-up of the assault by Mr. Burke. Mr. Spota then resigned as DA.

Election 2017 was an important election in Suffolk for women and a breakthrough for African-Americans here with Errol Toulon, Jr. of Lake Grove voted in as sheriff and becoming the first black to win a (non-judicial) countywide post.

I recall 1973 when Judith Hope became the first woman to be elected a town supervisor in Suffolk by winning the election for East Hampton supervisor. A good number of women have followed Ms. Hope since as town supervisors in Suffolk, among them Henrietta Acampora in Brookhaven; Barbara Keyser on Shelter Island; Mardythe DiPirro in Southampton; Jean Cochran in Southold; and currently in office, Angie Carpenter in Islip town. 

What a contrast to the centuries when the county’s governing body, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors (replaced by a Suffolk Legislature in 1970) consisted only of men—because there wasn’t a woman town supervisor until Ms. Hope.

Election 2017 in Suffolk resulted in the victory of Laura Jens-Smith as town supervisor of Riverhead—the first woman to be elected supervisor of Riverhead since the town was founded 225 years ago. Elected with her to a town board seat was Catherine Kent.  In Southampton, Ann Welker was elected to the Southampton Board of Trustees—the first woman to become a Southampton Trustee since establishment of that panel 331 years ago. In Smithtown, Lynne Nowick was easily re-elected to the town board. And there were other female winners this year in Suffolk—which was a national trend.

The election of Mr. Toulon, former deputy corrections commissioner in New York City, is a milestone in a county with a long history of racism.  

When I started as a Suffolk-based journalist in 1962, the leaders of the major parties would not think of running a female for government offices other than for town clerk and town tax receiver—seen as kind of secretarial roles for women back then. 

As for running a black person for a countywide office: forget about it!

Meanwhile, 2017 was the first full year of operation for Deepwater Wind’s wind farm off Block Island—14 miles east of Montauk Point. The five-turbine array, America’s first offshore wind farm, heralds what is likely to be the placement of many wind turbines off Long Island.

Indeed, the Long Island Power Authority in 2017 gave its go-ahead to Deepwater Wind to build what the Rhode Island-based company has named its South Fork Wind Farm in the Atlantic Ocean 30 miles southeast of East Hampton. Also in 2017, LIPA gave the OK to Statoil, a Norwegian-headquartered firm, to build a wind farm Statoil has named Empire Wind south of the shores of Nassau County. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is bullish on offshore wind and sees it as a key element in the state’s plan to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. As of the new year—that’s only a dozen years away!

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.