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Dan Hust | Democrat

Members of the county’s solid waste user fee committee debate its various facets on Tuesday in the Government Center. From the left are Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine, Neversink Assessor Gene Froehlich, Highland Assessor Reneé Ozomek and Bethel Assessor Marge Brown.

Frustrations, not plans at waste committee

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — August 20, 2010 — Tuesday’s long-awaited reconvening of the county’s solid waste user fee committee ended with unresolved frustrations rather than a plan of action.
Though committee members had seemed mildly optimistic at past meetings that a recommendation on the future of the waste fee was forthcoming to the County Legislature, a lack of needed data put that on hold until at least September.
Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine told the committee that only four of the 15 townships in the county had fully replied to a request to review “test rolls” – parcel data – to ensure accuracy in the way the revamped waste fee will be assessed on properties.
While assessors were not chastised for the delay – indeed, Levine and others pointed out this is a busy time of year for them in small claims court – their input is essential to formulating an accurate and fair fee structure.
“Without that info, we can’t move forward,” noted Legislator Elwin Wood, chair of the committee.
Yet even with that data in hand, “somebody’s got to be the one who’ll make the final determination as to what [fee] categories they fit into,” observed Levine.
Other hurdles remain, as well – for example, what to do with a home that’s under construction.
“How do you want to bill those parcels?” wondered Highland Assessor Reneé Ozomek. “As vacant or residential?”
Committee members seemed to agree that a property’s condition on March 1, Taxable Status Day, would dictate the answer, but as Treasurer Ira Cohen pointed out, that means a house which is 80 percent complete might be charged a lower rate than inhabited homes for the ensuing year – even if it’s finished and occupied a few days or weeks after March 1.
“What is going to be the basis for the charge in the future?” Cohen also mused, arguing that a generation fee can’t be assessed on properties which don’t create trash.
But since the county seeks to include vacant parcels in the list of fee-payers, County Manager David Fanslau replied that it’s currently being called a waste fee and will likely be assessed on parcels with “the potential to generate solid waste.”
“We aren’t going on generation,” Delaware Town Clerk/Tax Collector Tess McBeath remarked to Cohen. “We’re going on access [to the system].”
Nevertheless, Neversink Assessor Gene Froehlich warned lawsuits would follow if vacant land is assessed a fee – especially from New York City, which owns vast tracts around its upstate reservoirs.
McBeath thought the vacant parcel fee would be too low to give the city incentive to fight it, while Neversink Supervisor Greg Goldstein added that the city’s lands are already used for trash-generating activities like hunting, camping and fishing.
But, replied Froehlich, the city also has conservation easements on privately-owned land, meaning both the city and the property owner would likely get bills from the county – a double-billing situation enhancing the chances for litigation.
Indeed, the entire system’s legal defensibility remains a question.
“What is going to be your legal basis for determining the various amounts?” Ozomek pressed Fanslau. “... With all due respect, it seems you’re going to pull numbers out of the air until it adds up to $5.2 million [the amount needed to cover solid waste debt in 2011].”
“No, we’re not going to pull numbers out of a hat to establish a ‘magical’ revenue base,” Fanslau replied.
However, he deferred to County Attorney Sam Yasgur – who had left the room minutes prior – to defend the legality of the new fee system.
Fanslau did warn the committee that if it’s unable to recommend or the Legislature is unable to establish a new fee system, taxpayers could be facing an 11.5 percent property tax hike to cover the shortfall.
(After the meeting, he acknowledged legislators are more likely to stick with the existing fee structure – despite its controversy – rather than increase taxes.)
In the meantime, Bethel Assessor Marge Brown pointed out that someone has to read and react to the notes and corrections on the parcel data the four town assessors reviewed for the county.
And then that someone must read the 11 more the Real Property Tax Services Department is attempting to solicit from the remaining townships.
Fanslau indicated his staff, Levine and Management Information Systems (MIS) personnel will be assigned to that task – once all the data is received.
“I’ve asked the assessors to try to get the info back to me by September 1,” said Levine.
Ozomek noted the countywide assessors’ association will gather next week, where the need for that crucial data will be stressed.
Thus, the waste fee committee will meet again on Tuesday, September 14 at 9 a.m. at the Government Center in Monticello. Meetings are open to the public.

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