Dan Hust | Democrat
Larry Felix of Sullivan County First Refuse and Recycling airs his concerns with the proposed solid waste user fee. Behind him are legislators Alan Sorensen, Ron Hiatt, Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman.
County talks trash
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Dissent over how best to take care of the county’s trash reached such a depth on Thursday that the Town of Fremont threatened to secede.
Fremont Town Supervisor Jim Greier told legislators during Thursday’s public hearing on a proposed solid waste user fee that the town board might seek annexation into neighboring Delaware County if Sullivan County proceeded with the proposal.
Looks like the board will be challenged to prove the veracity of that claim, as legislators voted 7-2 after the hearing to move to a system that would charge every non-vacant parcel of land a trash disposal fee.
Legislators Alan Sorensen and David Sager were the two dissenters, and their concerns mirrored those of an audience largely disenchanted with the fee idea.
“I am not opposed in principle to the concept of a user fee,” Sorensen remarked, expressing interest in a combined tipping fee-user fee system. “However, I am opposed to the structure of this user fee.”
Though the actual fee structure has yet to be finalized or approved (a State Environmental Quality Review Act process must be completed first), full-time residents have been told they can expect around a $180 fee on this January’s county tax bill for their single-family home.
Non-residential and mixed-use properties will feature higher fees but likely will not get a bill until July, as Sorensen discovered a range of discrepancies that has forced county officials to create a new database to recalculate those fees. That database will not be ready in time for January’s bills.
A harshly-worded press release from Sorensen accused county leaders of deliberately misrepresenting the accuracy of data used to create the proposal, which led to obvious tension amongst legislators and a prepared statement by Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis accusing Sorensen of engaging in a selfish political ploy.
But both the residential and non-residential components of the solid waste user fee designed to wean trash disposal costs off the county’s tax-supported general fund, pay for the long-term debt of the soon-to-be-closed landfill, and fund the resulting exportation of garbage garnered criticism at Thursday’s unusually well-attended hearing in Monticello.
“Residents will pay more, not less,” predicted Larry Felix, who was representing Shirley Felder-Morton and her trash hauling company, Sullivan County First Refuse and Recycling. “... What happened to paying for what you use?”
Felix was referencing the planned disappearance of tipping fees once the user fee goes into effect. For many who pay a hauler to dispose of their trash like County Manager David Fanslau, who estimated he would save about $90 a year with the new program garbage costs are likely to drop.
But for those who schlep their trash to area transfer stations (which will remain open), the fee is likely to increase their annual disposal expenses.
Plus, said several speakers, it will potentially lead to less recycling, as a flat fee offers no financial incentive to recycle. And the lack of a tipping fee, they added, could end up encouraging out-of-county people to illegally use local transfer stations, unless a method is worked out to verify identity.
“Free disposal is the end of recycling,” Felix warned. “... Everything will go in the garbage.”
The town boards of Tusten and Highland officially registered their opposition, as well, and Tusten resident Angela Daley wondered how the new system could equitably handle her and her husband’s mobile home park.
“[The residents] are living minimalist existences,” she noted. “They’re living on very fixed incomes [and] they have no other options in this county.”
Yet the park’s overall disposal costs currently at $2,000 a year are projected to rise to $5,400 annually under the user fee system, which Daley bluntly assessed as an additional tax.
“People are leaving our county and Tusten in droves,” she remarked, worried that this will accelerate that exodus.
Lou Setren, a county employee and union representative, was the only audience member to speak in favor of the plan, warning that taxes would rise and tipping fees would double under alternatives to the user fee system.
He acknowledged the fees could be burdensome on some properties, but doing nothing might lead to as much as a 30 percent tax increase.
“The bill has now come due for this broken system,” he observed. “We cannot avoid this problem any longer.”
Legislators squabbled about the true impacts of the system, though notably, none of them cast it as the perfect solution.
“There is not a perfect solution out there,” Legislator Jodi Goodman said. “... We’re at a desperate measure.”
The promise was reiterated that the county would use 2010 as a trial run for the system, adjusting for inequities, but Sorensen and Sager reiterated their doubt that legislators will follow through on that promise.
“This isn’t etched in stone,” replied Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt. “It’s kind of etched in Jell-O.”
“This is a work in progress,” agreed Legislator Kathy LaBuda, who insisted that it must be done now to avoid deeper cuts than already planned in county government. “I will not lay off 50 employees because we cannot decide what to do with our trash!”
Still, legislators acknowledged the bitterness over the proposal.
“The overwhelming impression I get is there is a strong dislike of this particular piece of legislation,” mused Legislator Frank Armstrong.
Nevertheless, he voted for creating the system, feeling that this represents a first step that must be taken immediately.
“There’s an old saying: too much analysis leads to paralysis,” added Hiatt. “We need to act now. ... To do nothing is to be part of the problem.”