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County eyes ‘flat’ waste user fee

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — May 14, 2010 — The field of options is narrowing for the committee tasked with determining the future of Sullivan County’s solid waste user fee.
In fact, committee member and Delaware Town Clerk/Tax Collector Tess McBeath motioned to take the disposal district out of the discussion.
“I don’t think it’s going to work, no matter what,” she said.
Though no formal vote resulted, County Manager David Fanslau said he agreed with McBeath, and Committee Chairman and Legislator Elwin Wood indicated that idea would be dropped – at least for 2011, which is the committee’s primary focus for now.
So might be the solid waste authority proposal, which would mimic a successful model in Rockland County but require both local and state authorization.
“Creating a solid waste authority or district is going to be time-consuming,” warned Fanslau, noting that legislators will need a recommendation from the committee by mid-summer in order to properly discuss and choose a path for next year.
A property tax increase also seems off the table, as head-shaking greeted Fanslau’s explanation that an 11.6 percent tax hike would be necessary to cover the debt and operating costs of the solid waste system in 2011.
And, of course, that wouldn’t include the tax-exempt properties that county officials are intent on making a part of the revenue source.
Ironically, that leaves the user fee as one of the most viable options, and the committee seemed to be leaning towards that idea, albeit with some modifications.
But basing it on the amount of waste generated, cautioned County Attorney Sam Yasgur, would allow people to appeal their way out of paying the fee, so long as they could demonstrate they do not use the system.
“Tying it to generation in any way becomes almost insurmountable,” he said, referring also to potentially endless – and unresolvable – debates about how much trash a particular property is or isn’t generating.
So Fanslau is polling all nine county legislators to see if there’s enough support for what is known as waste flow control.
Such a policy would require all trash generated in Sullivan County to be deposited at a Sullivan County solid waste facility. That’s already actually a law in the county, but it has not been enforced since its creation nearly 20 years ago.
More than 400 appeals to the solid waste user fee have been reviewed by county officials since the fee went into effect in January and February, many of them based on the fact that residents and business owners along the borders of the county ship their trash out of the county.
While few appeals were granted, county leaders are eager to avoid the time-consuming process while simultaneously ensuring enough revenue comes in to cover the now-closed landfill’s $34 million in past debt.
Flow control would eliminate that dilemma.
“That should significantly end the appeals,” predicted Fanslau.
Whether there’s enough support from the County Legislature, however, remains to be seen, especially with the anticipated opposition from haulers and others who take their trash outside the county.
And there are more questions yet to be answered – for example, should the user fee be a flat fee for everyone, a sliding-scale fee (as it is now) or a per-unit charge?
A flat fee seemed to garner a good deal of support from the committee, though Fanslau – who liked its simplicity – was not at all sure it would engender the same support from the Legislature, which has the final say.
“Even the Chamber would agree that you can’t necessarily compare a house and a business,” he pointed out.
He was referring to the county’s Chamber of Commerce, which has its own committee working on this task – a committee that has already recommended the per-unit charge, said Chamber Board Chairman Jeremy Gorelick, albeit with a higher rate for commercial operations with more than 25,000 square feet under a single roof.
The Chamber, in fact, is even now compiling a comprehensive count of all residential units in the county – from single-family homes to apartments.
But Gorelick acknowledged that housing units are always in flux, meaning a per-unit assessment system would constantly need to be updated.
Fanslau stressed the need to have a system that reduces workloads and the associated costs, not one that creates more.
Still, whether it’s a flat fee or a per-unit charge, the amount may be up to $10 lower than the current residential user fee of $84.95.
But that leads to another issue, said Fanslau: some tiny vacant parcels don’t even pay $85 a year in taxes.
And a per-unit charge could skyrocket the rates charged to multi-use properties and mobile home parks, which currently pay a lump sum that is not tied to how many housing units they feature.
So Fanslau asked Yasgur to verify the legal basis for charging a flat/per-unit fee. Yasgur may have an answer for the committee at its next meeting this Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Government Center.
Fanslau is also FOILing Rockland County’s fee schedule, which was supposed to be provided already by Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority attorney Teno West. Despite being paid by Sullivan County to advise the committee on this matter, West has yet to follow through on his promise to provide that schedule.
Fanslau also hopes to have an answer back from the Legislature about flow control so that the committee can provide an acceptable recommendation by the end of June, allowing legislators time to debate and discuss it in July and August.
“The Legislature needs to make a final decision by no later than September 1,” he explained, in order to make it part of the tentative budget for 2011.
Committee member and Neversink Supervisor Greg Goldstein said whatever solution is reached, it should be “legal, acceptable, defensible and fair.”
“I don’t know whether there’s any system where that word [‘fair’] is totally applicable,” replied Yasgur.
Legally, he added, the more accurate term would be “rational.”

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