Solid waste fee revisited
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO June 28, 2013 Sullivan County’s Solid Waste Task Force last week continued to debate how to more fairly distribute the much-loathed solid waste access fee present on most county tax bills.
Though the idea of assessing the fee on vacant land had appeared to gain momentum the prior month, this month’s meeting featured some uncertainty about it plus a chastising of the Democrat’s prior article, which was blamed for misleading readers into thinking the matter was settled.
No vote on creating a vacant land fee was taken in the April or May task force meetings, member Gary Maas pointed out.
And any determinations made by the task force, added Chair Kathy LaBuda, will only be presented as recommendations to the Legislature, which has final authority.
Those comments came in response to passionate pleas from residents Renata Gittler and Matt Mordas to keep tapped-out taxpayers in mind.
“I’ve been here eight years, and my taxes have doubled for a little shack in the woods!” complained Gittler. “Nobody at this table is representing me… and you’re breaking the middle class!”
Mordas said he was attending on behalf of “the newly created minority: the vacant landowners of Sullivan County.”
Gittler and Mordas both questioned the fairness of adding the solid waste fee to vacant parcels, to which task force members assured them there is no done deal.
“We do share your pain,” said LaBuda. “We know that there are inequities [but the goal is] to come up with better rates.”
The task force inched toward that goal on Thursday.
Member John Fink and county Public Works Commissioner Ed McAndrew sparred over Fink’s idea to assess an ad valorem “amortization fee,” whereby all parcels that existed prior to the landfill’s closure would pay on real property value in direct proportion to the benefit received by lower property taxes during the life of the landfill.
“The idea is the land received the benefit from a facility that existed,” said Fink, estimating that the landfill brought in about $30 million in imported waste revenue over its final decade of activity, leading to lower (or at least stabilized) property taxes during that time.
“I think you’d have a lot of legal challenges,” McAndrew told Fink (the “you” meaning the county), also arguing that the owner of the parcel, not the property itself, received the “benefit.”
Task Force member Bonnie Hubert pointed out that new property owners in the county are also paying off the landfill’s debt through the access fee.
Plus, an ad valorem system would not legally be able to encompass tax-exempt properties, as opposed to the current access fee, which brings in about $300,000 from otherwise exempt parcels, said Deputy Treasurer Nancy Buck.
“I am surprised, because I was hoping it would be somewhere around $600,000,” replied member Joe Herschel.
As for assessing vacant land, County Attorney Sam Yasgur estimated that a flat $15 fee per parcel “probably raises almost a million dollars,” which members seemed inclined to explore further.
Fink noted that one of his other ideas an “Environmental Maintenance and Monitoring Fee” to pay for the landfill’s post-closure maintenance and monitoring obligations would be assessed on all parcels, vacant or occupied.
He also suggested considering a recycling fee, whilst keeping the existing tipping fee at whatever level it needs to be.
Herschel wondered if that might not be too complicated, leading to taxpayer complaints a point Fink acknowledged but added, “My idea is people want to know what they’re paying for.”
Hubert questioned why the fee is being assessed on municipalities and organizations like fire departments, considering their staff and constituencies are taxpayers already paying that fee on their own properties.
Whatever is chosen, Gittler asked leaders to remember who’s paying the bill.
“The anger is a collective anger,” she noted. “We are tired. We are broken.”
More figures including the square footage of large businesses like Wal-Mart and ShopRite, which each pay a solid waste fee of just $300 will be presented at the next Task Force meeting.
Open to the public, it’s currently scheduled for Thursday, July 18 at 10 a.m.