Town supervisors blast Levy for out-of-county college tax

Mark Lesko, Steve Bellone, Scott Russell
COURTESY PHOTO | A group of Suffolk County town supervisors gathered this week to blast County Executive Steve Levy for a bill that would shift payment of out-of-county tuition tax to the towns.

Both North Fork town supervisors blasted Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy this week for shifting the out-of-county state community college tuition tax over to the towns in his 2012 preliminary budget.

The statewide tax is charged for all students who attend New York community colleges outside their home counties and is paid to the county where the student is enrolled. To date, the tax for Suffolk students has been paid by the county.

During a press conference in Hauppauge, members of the Suffolk County Supervisors Association criticized Mr. Levy for giving them no warning about the change, which would collectively add more than $10 million to town budgets across the county.

Based on data gathered between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011, county comptroller and North Fork native Joe Sawicki said the out-of-county tuition tax for 30 affected students from Riverhead would cost the town $141,130. Southold Town would pay $85,300 to educate similar students.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said Tuesday that Mr. Levy’s office first reached out to him about the change on Sept. 30 — the same week local supervisors presented their preliminarily spending plans.

“At the 11th hour, [Mr. Levy] handed us a bill,” Mr. Russell said, describing the move as “passing the buck” over to the towns.

Mr. Russell said he and other town supervisors believe the county should remain responsible for the out-of-county tuition tax because towns “have no seat at the table” with state community colleges’ decisions.

Dan Aug, a spokesman for Mr. Levy, said in a statement that he believed the tax should be handled on a town-by-town basis, since some towns have a larger percentage of students attending state community colleges outside their home county.

“We believe that state law should be changed so that no local taxpayers have to subsidize the tuition of a student who freely decides to go to an out-of-county community college and we invite town supervisors to join us in lobbying Albany,” Mr. Aug said.

Mr. Aug, who described the move as a “more equitable system,” noted that Nassau County has been using the town-by-town system since 2004.

But Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter described Mr. Levy’s justification as a “stupid argument,” since Nassau towns receive more sales tax revenue than Suffolk towns.

Mr. Walter said Riverhead Town generates $25 million to $30 million in sales tax revenue, but only received about $1 million of it back from the county.

“This is another unfunded mandate rolling downhill,” Mr. Walter said of the out-of-county tuition tax.

The Legislature has until Nov. 9 — the day after Election Day — to come up with a final budget.

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