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County agrees to hire lawyer on user fee options

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — March 19, 2010 — Tuesday’s shorter-than-usual meeting of the county’s solid waste review committee led to one conclusion: legal opinions are necessary to continue considering options for the 2011 solid waste user fee alternative.
“Does the county have the legal ability to implement an access or availability fee, as opposed to a user fee?” County Manager David Fanslau wondered.
And there are other sticky issues. What fee, if any, should be assessed on Smallwood’s tiny 50'x100' lots, asked Bethel Assessor Marge Brown, noting that the township requires at least a dozen of those lots to be contiguously owned before anyone can build on them.
Another question asked at the meeting: can the opt-out process be avoided? And how about assessing a uniform fee over every parcel in the county, tax-exempt or not, vacant or improved?
Fanslau had prepared a chart showing what that might look like, using an annual figure of $5.7 million in expenses (with tipping fees, per-bag charges and recycling revenue covering the rest).
The user fee would amount to $86.91 per parcel under that scenario, or if based on assessments, $91.96 per $100,000 of total assessed value. Such a fee would make no distinction between commercial and residential properties (though if based on assessed value, most commercial properties would obviously pay a higher amount than most residences).
The tax impact would amount to 9.9 percent, or 11.7 percent if restricted just to currently taxable parcels.
As the figures were a response to research requests by the committee, no decision was made, with the consent being that legal advice was immediately needed.
“It’s easy to say we could divide it by parcel, but is that legal?” wondered Fanslau. “I really don’t know.”
County Attorney Sam Yasgur, said Committee Chairman Elwin Wood, is very busy with a small staff, so members looked in a different direction.
Fanslau said he had received a proposal from Teno West, legal counsel for the Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority and a recent speaker at the committee, to do the necessary legal research and render opinions on the legalities of each option.
A price was not forthcoming, with Fanslau saying he was still awaiting a proposed budget from West.
Still, committee members seemed interested and gave an informal go-ahead.
“I think that’s very important for us to do,” assented County Treasurer Ira Cohen.
But Neversink Supervisor Greg Goldstein insisted a time limit – around two weeks – be imposed on West, so the committee is not sitting around until his report is in.
As of late yesterday, the legislature agreed to hire West’s law firm – Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux and West – for a fee that will not exceed $20,000.
Legislator David Sager and Bethel resident Keith Rumsey felt an opinion should first be obtained from the state comptroller’s office on whether a disposal district or waste authority can take on the $36 million in old landfill debt, but Fanslau said an experienced attorney needs to approach the state with questions framed in the correct manner.
Legislator Ron Hiatt felt West’s work “shouldn’t take a lot of time and money” – considering his experience with Rockland County’s operations.
“Initially, I don’t think this would be very expensive,” Fanslau replied, though he added that if the county does decide to go with the district or authority options, the process may become more costly.
“As we’re finding out, there is no shortage of solid waste models out there,” he concluded. “... The issue is, whatever gets done, the public obviously needs to support [it].”
The next meeting of the committee is on Tuesday, March 30 at 9 a.m. at the Government Center in Monticello, to which the public is invited. The meeting for the 23rd has been cancelled, as legislators will be away at a tour of the Delaware County Jail in Delhi.

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