Waste fees approved
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The controversial solid waste user fee rate schedule seemed on the brink of collapse at Thursday’s County Legislature meeting.
Local trash hauler Shirley Felder-Morton brought a potentially fatal and apparently unavoidable problem with the fee law to legislators’ attention.
In short, there’s an “opt out” ability whereby the fee will be refunded if the resident or businessperson can prove conclusively to county officials that they do not use the Sullivan County solid waste system in any way.
Legislators instantly realized that this could mean a significant number of property and business owners would start sending their trash out of the county to avoid the much-despised user fee.
As a result, said Legislator Leni Binder, this could “decimate the system before it’s started. ... You will see 60-70 percent of the fee eroded!”
It was a surprise departure from the oft-touted idea that the fee would ensure 100 percent of the county’s improved properties would have to contribute to a solid waste system that heretofore had only relied on taxes and tipping fees.
Binder said her recent vote to approve the waste fee concept “was predicated on the fact that every property, exempt or not, would pay that fee.”
The idea, said legislators, was to make the $12.5 million/year solid waste system self-sufficient, plus start paying off $41 million in accrued debt on the county landfill, which will close at the end of this month.
And up until Thursday, legislators portrayed the fee as inescapable.
“I think there were probably several of us under that misconception,” acknowledged Legislator David Sager.
More than several. Save for Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis, every single legislator confirmed that they had been caught unaware.
“I did not understand people could opt out, and that is very problematic to me,” said Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt.
In later interviews with the Democrat, legislators Kathy LaBuda, Frank Armstrong and Elwin Wood who with Rouis and Hiatt comprise the Democratic majority admitted the same.
“That was not something I heard about,” said Armstrong.
“I wasn’t aware we had an opt-out,” added Wood.
None of the Republican minority expressed any awareness either, including legislators Jodi Goodman and Alan Sorensen.
In fact, Sorensen posed a question that took on immediate significance, since Thursday’s meeting also featured the county budget vote.
“How do you adopt a 2010 budget based on revenue that may not be there?” he wondered.
In a subsequent interview with the Democrat, Rouis discounted his fellow legislators’ fears.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there today,” he said. “... I certainly don’t expect there will be a lot of opting out.”
He based that assumption on the belief that hauling trash out of the county will prove the more expensive option for county residents and businesspeople.
Rouis also disliked the term “opt out,” saying the process will be an intense and rigorous one with a grievance committee comprised of county officials.
“You don’t get to just check a box and opt out,” Rouis said. “You have to be able to prove you are not using the system.”
What that proof must be has yet to be determined, as legislators will soon be asked to formally set up the grievance committee, including confirming committee members.
At this time, it appears Deputy County Manager Josh Potosek, Treasurer Ira Cohen, Division of Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer and Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine will be on that committee, though it may ultimately include legislators Sager, Sorensen and others.
As for the seven legislators’ lack of awareness, County Attorney Sam Yasgur advised them that he had spoken and written to them about that very issue several times over the past few months.
“The fee would only be required to be paid by those using the system,” he said, pointing out that he was trying to convey that aspect when he recently told legislators they could not assess a user fee on vacant land, since such properties do not contribute to the trash stream.
“Someone who doesn’t come to the transfer stations isn’t charged a tipping fee,” he added by way of clarification. “... I’ve been consistent [about this] from day one.”
The idea of creating a “waste district” was raised in order to get past the opt-out ability, but Yasgur said such a district legally could not charge users for pre-existing debt in other words, the landfill’s $41 million of outstanding debt.
“Perhaps the better decision is to get out of it altogether,” said Rouis during the public session, displaying frustration with the last-minute debate.
But the Legislature seemed to agree that offering waste services is part of its countywide obligations.
So despite the confusion and continued concerns from the public, legislators ultimately agreed to a solid waste user fee rate schedule (see sidebar). Hiatt said taxpayers would be facing a 12 percent tax increase otherwise.
“You know, the Constitution wasn’t perfect, but we pressed ahead with it and adjusted as we went,” he remarked.
Legislators Binder, Sager and Sorensen remained opposed, mainly because of concerns over the $850-per-mobile-home-park fee, which they felt would be inequitable for small-scale parks with residents on fixed incomes.
And the fees are…
SULLIVAN COUNTY Here’s what you can expect to pay in 2010 for use of the county’s solid waste system:
Residential user fees
• Single-family $84.95
• Single-family with enhanced STAR $72
• Apartment $84.95
• Seasonal residential $49.75
• Cottage/bungalow $79.50
• Mobile home parks $850 (per park, not unit)
Commercial user fees
• Low volume $350
• Moderate volume $450
• High volume $650
• Very high volume $850
(for those taking their own trash to the transfer stations)
• Clear bags $2
• Non-clear bags $4
(for haulers and others
with large truckloads)
• Municipal solid waste $85 per ton
• Construction and demolition debris $125 per ton
NOTE: There may be a special pass put up for sale in 2010 for out-of-county residents who wish to utilize the county’s solid waste system.
For more information, call the county’s Division of Public Works at 807-0261.