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Unit or parcel: waste fee disabled

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — June 18, 2010 — Flow control seems a likely recommendation of the committee reviewing where to go with the solid waste user fee, but at Tuesday’s meeting, committee members wrestled with how to assess that fee.
The question: per-unit or per-parcel fees?
Some favored charging a fee to every housing/business unit – for example, every mobile home, rather than the current method of charging the mobile home park as a single commercial entity.
Others favored the per-parcel idea, where every parcel of property – including vacant and tax-exempt properties – would pay a fee, regardless of the use of that property or the structures upon it.
Highland Assessor Renee Ozomek and her Bethel counterpart, Marge Brown, decried the per-unit idea, arguing that it would be too complex.
“You’re in for a heck of a lot of detailed work,” said Ozomek.
Ozomek and Brown warned that while assessors’ databases may contain information on each housing unit on every property, it would not be easy to find that data. In some cases, she indicated researchers would have to manually count units by section-block-lot (SBL) number.
“That’s going to be very time-consuming,” predicted Ozomek.
“And who’s going to do it?” asked Brown, agreeing with Ozomek that assessors are already busy enough. “An office will have to do it.”
“If the assessors have that data,” replied County Manager David Fanslau, “it can be drilled out.”
Ozomek dryly responded that the county is welcome to dedicate staff to that effort.
“Can we run a test to see how easy it would be to pull the numbers?” wondered Lisa Mills of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce.
Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine said she’d be willing to work with Brown, Ozomek and the other assessors to do such a test run, with the participation of the county’s Management Information Systems (MIS) department. Mills volunteered her efforts, as well.
County Attorney Sam Yasgur surmised such data would have to ultimately be imported into a new database designed specifically to extract that information.
And doing all this in time to enact a new fee system in 2011 remains highly uncertain.
Nevertheless, people like County Treasurer Ira Cohen, Delaware Tax Collector/Town Clerk Tess McBeath and Legislator David Sager endorsed the per-unit concept.
“I’m a unit guy,” acknowledged Sager.
“In all fairness, you have to have a per-unit, not per-parcel, charge,” observed Cohen.
Yet others on the committee were leaning toward a flat fee covering every property in the county. Questions on that path included whether that could cover all costs and how vacant land (or other unoccupied parcels, like cemeteries) could legally be charged.
“Can you charge vacant land?” wondered Cohen. “Obviously then it’s not a ‘user’ fee.”
Agreement was found on enacting flow control, which would require all waste generated in the county be disposed at county facilities.
Fanslau said a number of steps must now be taken toward that goal, including creating a findings statement detailing the argument for flow control, how it will work and the advantages over private alternatives.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, he said, is “very supportive” of the concept, but the matter must go through a public hearing and then a vote by the County Legislature – by September, if it is to be enacted into law for January 2011.
Neversink Supervisor Greg Goldstein said Fanslau and other county officials should make presentations on the concept to the town supervisors.
Public education was agreed upon as a necessary component, especially with Fanslau stating that the various trash haulers serving the area are “generally opposed” to flow control, as it limits their ability to seek other markets and disposal sites.
However, Fanslau promised that all measures would be taken to ensure that tipping fee rate hikes are justified, so as not to create “a backdoor way to a cash cow” for the county.
Enforcement is another concern of the haulers, he said, though he believes a tipping fee that’s competitive with neighboring counties’ should greatly reduce the need to be vigilant against interlopers.
“I think they want an equitable system,” Fanslau assessed.
So does the general populace, which committee members feel are willing to embrace a fair process if it leads to reducing debt and saving money in the years ahead.
“I think we have to really sell that point to residents that they’re really going to benefit from this down the road,” remarked McBeath, knowing well the opposition that’s brewing in western Sullivan County.
Still, she’s worried the move may bring lawsuits.
“Can the county afford to be a test case of the United Haulers case?” she wondered, referencing the 2007 Supreme Court ruling legalizing flow control.
“I don’t know if we can afford not to,” replied Fanslau.
McBeath said she’s for flow control, “but we can’t screw it up.”
“The people have to see that it works,” agreed Goldstein.
That may be a tall order.
“It’s true: the public doesn’t trust the county,” acknowledged Brown. “They’re not happy.”
“If we’re competitive with the rates where they [haulers and residents] are taking their trash,” noted Sager, “then there really shouldn’t be a problem.”
The committee will again take up the matter at its next meeting, currently scheduled for this coming Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Government Center in Monticello. The meeting is open to the public.

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