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Waste user fee challenges continue; more await coming

By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY — February 2, 2010 — Yesterday, the new per-bag and tipping fees went into effect at Sullivan County’s transfer stations.
But the county continues to wrestle with this “hybrid” system, which blends user fees tacked on to property tax bills with the bag and tipping fees.
Indeed, there is every possibility that by this time next year, residents and business owners will be dealing with an entirely different system.
Here’s a look at some current issues:
• Due to the broad property class codes the county used to determine how much each property must pay in solid waste user fees, a number of the “corrected” tax bills sent out last week were, in fact, still incorrect.
For example, the United Reformed Church of Youngsville just got a “revised” tax bill of $300, even though houses of worship are supposed to be charged $84.95, based on a decision made by the County Legislature in mid-January.
“This is a shocking, unexpected and unbudgeted charge, and we will not be paying this fee at this time!” Robert Vakiener wrote to County Treasurer Ira Cohen last Wednesday on behalf of the church consistory.
County Manager David Fanslau indicated they won’t have to pay it, as another round of re-corrected bills will be sent out by the end of this month, after county staff have scoured tax and business records, parcel by parcel, to determine the real nature of each inaccurately assessed property.
He acknowledged that the broad nature of the property classification system used by assessors isn’t a perfect fit for the county’s solid waste purposes.
Therefore, some entities – like the United Reformed Church, which features a thrift shop classified as a commercial enterprise – continue to be charged inaccurate user fees. (The commercial user fee is $300.)
Such problems abound, according to Bethel Town Assessor Marge Brown.
A local ambulance corps, she said, was charged the appropriate $84.95 – and then again for vacant land it owns. Apparently, the county simply went by the property class code, which listed it not as vacant land – for which there is no user fee – but as part of the ambulance corps’ station.
“And they haven’t addressed the sand-and-gravel [mining operations],” she added, noting that those parcels don’t produce solid waste and could be considered vacant land but are being charged the $300 commercial rate.
“The tax roll is not the greatest thing to use [for this],” she observed.
• Brown was one of about two dozen people who attended last Thursday’s inaugural meeting of the Solid Waste Review Committee, created by the county to study the current setup and recommend improvements for 2011 – or a full overhaul even.
“I thought it was a very productive meeting,” said Brown of the two-hour gathering.
Neversink Town Supervisor Greg Goldstein, representing the Sullivan County Supervisors’ Association, agreed but hopes the next meeting – scheduled for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, February 16 in the Government Center – will avoid some of the sniping about past sins.
“We can’t sit there and argue about what’s happened,” he remarked. “What’s done is done. ... We need to address 2011 as soon as possible.”
He felt the committee’s goal should be “to get this where everybody is halfway happy.”
Fanslau agreed that change is in the air, no matter what path is taken.
“Are we going to leave a user fee ... in place going into 2011?” he pondered. “Then we’ll have to build and perfect a database [of property uses].”
Fanslau acknowledged some of the problems have been caused by competing concepts of the waste system being awkwardly and hurriedly merged into this “hybrid” model, and the committee must untangle that mess.
“Basically, all the issues are going to be on the table until ruled to be off the table,” he explained.
“We know the cost of the solid waste system,” he remarked, referring to both current operating expenses and the more than $4 million a year being spent to repay old landfill debt through 2022.
“The question is, how do we pay for that? ... It has to be a scenario where everybody who generates solid waste in Sullivan County pays for the system.”
• One change is already under way, said Fanslau.
“We’re moving toward a cashless system,” he explained of the method of per-bag payments at transfer stations.
New coupons geared toward the $2-per-clear-bag/$4-per-black-bag fees are now available.
Contact the county’s Solid Waste Department at 807-0290 for more info.
• Looking to grieve your user fee?
The county has dropped plans to offer a form for you to fill out. Instead, anyone seeking to contest their user fee is being asked to write a letter to County Treasurer Ira Cohen at the Government Center (100 North Street, Monticello, NY 12701).
Be sure to include your property’s section-block-lot (SBL) number and state the reason your fee should be lowered or eliminated.
Fanslau said Cohen is collecting the letters for presentation to an appeals committee that will soon begin reviewing each grievance.

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