As Seven Suffolk Towns Consider MTA Payroll Tax Suit, Not Everyone Is On The Same Page
East End discontent with the MTA has spread through town, county, and state levels. Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I - Sag Harbor) has cosponsored legislation with Marc Alessi (D - Wading River) which would create a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority, as has State Senator Ken LaValle (R - Port Jefferson). Photos courtesy of Southampton Town Supervisor's Office)
by Joseph Pinciaro
Long Island - Gaining strength in numbers, elected town officials collectively representing the lion's share of Suffolk County have indicated they intend to sue the MTA and New York State over a crippling payroll tax enacted last year.
The seven town supervisors met in Ronkonkoma on Monday to proclaim their plan to sue. At the same time, Suffolk County Legislators Ed Romaine (R - Center Moriches) and Jay Schneiderman (I - Montauk) announced that they are jointly filing a resolution with the Legislature to look into joining forces with the towns; it is yet to be determined if they will file a suit of their own or join a suit brought by the owner of a competing bus service.
William Schoolman, owner of Hampton Luxury Liner, sued on Dec. 14 last year challenging the payroll tax on six different grounds.
On Monday, elected officials collectively representing all of Suffolk County expressed intent to sue the MTA and New York State over a payroll tax enacted last year. Pictured, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, Southampton Supervisor Anne Thorne-Holst and Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko.
“As local representatives, it is our responsibility to stand up to the State for handing down inappropriate and, we believe, illegal ways to tax our residents with no justifiable level of service in return," Southampton Supervisor Anna Thorne-Holst asserted in a press statement released on Monday. Supervisors from Brookhaven, Riverhead, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip, and Babylon joined Throne-Holst at a rally staged at the Ronkonkoma train station.
Signed last May by Gov. David Paterson, the payroll tax levies $0.33 on every $100 of payroll transferred. Dubbed the MTA “bailout tax" by many, the tax has hit both private businesses and municipalities at a time when scaling back and spending less has been the preferred - sometimes only - way to continue doing business. At the time, the MTA citied a $1.2 billion budget shortfall as justification for the payroll tax, and only last week reduced services across all 12 counties in its jurisdiction, in the face of an $800 million deficit.
East Enders have taken a particular issue to the tax, protesting the "paltry service" that already extends to the area. Drastic cuts, limiting service on the Greenport line solely to summer weekends, were proposed in January, however local outrage convinced MTA officials to reconsider. Non-summer weekend service was cut last Wednesday, along with an array of similar cuts throughout the MTA service region.
“I don't mind paying my share," said Wilfred Joseph, president of the North Fork Bed and Breakfast Association. “But I want to get something back at least proportionate to what I pay."
Of the seven towns represented on Monday, only the Southampton and Brookhaven Town Boards had passed resolutions formally supporting the litigation. Brookhaven has stated that it will perform the legal work. Having other towns join the suit would provide strength in numbers.
Town Attorney offices with Southold and Riverhead are currently looking into whether or not the towns have legal standing on the issue. Photo by Joseph Pinciaro
Town Attorney offices with Southold and Riverhead are currently looking into whether or not the towns have legal standing on the issue. In their filing, the towns will be challenging the state's failure to obtain home rule messages from towns affected by the payroll tax, and the Legislature's failure to pass the tax by a two-thirds vote. According to the state constitution, a home rule message may be required to pass laws which would affect property and affairs of local government.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said that the matter will be discussed with the Town Board at Tuesday's work session, noting he didn't attend Monday's rally after missing repeated calls from Thorne-Holst.
Romaine and Schneiderman's proposal will be formally introduced at the next meeting of the County Legislature set for April 27. From there, it will likely go through the Ways and Means Committee, estimates Bill Faulk, Romaine's legislative aide. If approved in committee, the bill would be eligible for a full vote on May 11.
While the added endorsement of seven town supervisors and a county motion in support of the suit may seem like adequate muscle for Schoolman's lawsuit, the small business owner voiced skepticism on Tuesday about the town's real motives.
"I don't understand why the towns went their own separate ways," Schoolman stated. "I'm concerned because if the municipalities get together under their own lawsuit, they could end up cutting a special deal for themselves, which would leave taxpayers holding the bag. It looks like a little bit of political grandstanding to me."
Schoolman's lawsuit, the text of which can be found on a website he created (www.mtataxpayerabuse.com), cites nine different targets he's aiming legal recourse at, ranging from Gov. David Paterson to MTA CEO Jay Walder to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to New York State. Schoolman said that responses to his suit are due by April 1.
When asked why Riverhead town had not considered signing on with Schoolman's case, Supervisor Walter, an attorney, stated, "we would have a different theory of a case than he has in terms of standing. It's a taxpayer versus a municipality."