County eyes changes in waste fees
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Sullivan County residents might be facing an $80 solid waste user fee instead of a $180 fee.
Though legislators haven’t voted on specific fees yet (last week’s vote was simply to approve the user fee system), a discussion during budget talks on Tuesday ended with an apparent inclination to create what legislators are calling a “hybrid” fee structure.
Instead of eliminating tipping fees in favor of a user fee assessed on every non-vacant parcel in the county, legislators are considering keeping tipping fees while still adding the user fee, albeit at a smaller amount.
Calculations by Legislator Alan Sorensen, the most vocal opponent to the proposed user fee, indicated this pairing of fees could accomplish the goal of making the solid waste system self-sufficient including the ongoing monitoring and $40 million in debt payments on the soon-to-be-closed landfill, the expenses of the various transfer stations (which will remain open), and associated staffing and trucking costs.
Currently, tipping fees only cover a portion of that, with the rest of the solid waste system being supplemented through taxes.
Sorensen was aiming for a $40-per-residential-unit user fee, but Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis, who with his staff had done his own calculations, pegged it closer to $80.
“I don’t think there is any way to get to $40 without the tipping fee going well north of $100 [per ton],” Rouis said. (The fee for municipal solid waste is currently $75 a ton at the landfill and $85 a ton at the transfer stations.)
Rouis’ plan would include a charge of $1.50-$2 for each clear bag (the current charge is $2.50 per 30-gallon bag, or $2 per bag via a coupon book) and up to $5 per black bag, designed to encourage recycling.
“Our goal needs to be to dramatically increase our recycling,” agreed Sorensen, who had previously pointed out that a zero tipping fee would only encourage people to throw everything into the garbage, as there’s no incentive to recycle in the originally proposed plan.
More recycling also means less waste being exported. With the closure of the landfill slated for the end of this year, the county will soon realize higher costs to transport the waste out of the area instead of landfilling it in Monticello.
Sorensen worried that this year’s haul of 55,000 tons of trash will balloon to 87,000 tons under the original solid waste user fee proposal and possibly go higher in the years ahead.
“We don’t want to be handling 100,000 tons a year, especially if fuel costs go up,” he pointed out.
Legislators that day informally picked IESI of New Jersey to handle exportation at between $60 and $80 a ton. Recycling, Sorensen said, could thus save the county a significant amount of money.
At least theoretically. County Manager David Fanslau warned legislators Tuesday that he had just gotten an e-mail indicating the county may no longer find revenue from recycling plastics.
“We’re going to have to pay to get rid of our plastics now… because there’s no market for plastics,” he said, adding that it may approach $54 a ton.
Legislator Jodi Goodman also expressed reservations about the change in plans, noting that she had sold her constituents especially Village of Liberty residents on the $180 user fee, which would ironically not cost them as much as the $80 fee.
Without a drop in tipping fees, people who rely on hauling companies to take their trash away or, as in the Village of Liberty, use a municipal trash service will not see a drop in their disposal costs under this new proposal, as opposed to the original version.
And, of course, neither will those who take their trash to the landfill or transfer stations themselves.
As Goodman pointed out, instead of about half the county’s population seeing a decrease in disposal costs and the other half seeing an increase, everyone will face an increase.
“Your way is costing me more!” she said to Sorensen, estimating village residents will pay $320 a year instead of $240 for garbage disposal.
She advocated for the county to at least provide incentives for clear-bagging and recycling.
As for businesses, Rouis is proposing a yet-to-be-determined flat fee based on a commercial establishment’s waste volume. Large generators of garbage (who that would be was not spelled out) would pay “under $1,000,” while small generators would pay “under $500.”
“I don’t think a $400-a-year fee is going to put a business out of business,” Rouis remarked.
There was also some talk of charging $10 per vacant parcel, but County Attorney Sam Yasgur felt that would be outside the current scope of the user fee law just approved by legislators.
Legislators acknowledged that an enormous public outcry had pushed them to rethink the solid waste user fee.
“I think people are confused, frustrated and very angry,” observed Legislator Kathy LaBuda, noting she’s gotten more calls on the fee than she ever got with casinos. “We need to fine-tune it.”
Yet the options, agreed Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt, are “bad, worse and worst.”
Some sort of user fee thus seems certain, with legislators expected to vote on an exact fee structure on December 17. A promise was made to adjust the fees as needed in the second and third years of implementation.
Legislator Leni Binder said the user fee, in whatever form, would avoid a 12 percent additional tax hike.
“Doing nothing, everybody pays more,” agreed Rouis.
“This is a financing mechanism,” he reminded legislators a way to have 100 percent of the county’s residences and businesses support solid waste expenses, rather than just taxpayers and direct users. “You’ve got to pay for the system.”