Homeowners: Sewer fee 'not fair'
But is it illegal? Village attorney weighs in as higher powers are beckoned
December 08, 2010 | 05:38 PM
Village Attorney Jim Matthewas says he wants to sit down with the folks who are challenging the legality of the Northport's sewer fee and, in a friendly way, explain to them why the new charge is copacetic.
About 20 percent of village property owners use the sewer system and, starting this fall, must pay a fee — not to exceed $3.95 per 1,000 gallons — on top of their property taxes. The rate billed this year is based on each household or establishment's water consumption between June 2009 and June 2010.
In a Nov. 15 letter from A Call to Action Committee, the Northport homeowner associations of Harbor Point, Woodbine Harbor and Greentree Estates took issue with several facets of Local Law F, which the village Board of Trustees passed unanimously Aug. 3, and asked that the village seeks a formal opinion from the state comptroller and/or attorney general "on the merits of the new sewer fee," said Woodbine Harbor's president, Brian Nixon.
"We feel the imposition of a sewer tax by the trustees was too hasty," Nixon said. "It was not well thought out."
Matthews said while it could take time to get a written opinion from state officials, he had consulted the comptroller's office when the legislation was being prepared and again last week; on Friday, Matthews expressed satisfaction with the reply.
The Committee nonetheless questions the village's justification for its retroactive water consumption fee; though sewer fees are based on prior consumption in other municipalities, the first year of Northport's fee would be charging people for water they used long before Local Law F passed.
State law allows municipalities to set the fees for its sewer system but Mayor George Doll confirmed Friday it does not specify whether one may charge for a time period that precedes a law.
Matthews, alluding to his conversations with Ellen McDonald in the state comptroller's legal office, seemed confident that the village's fee schedule is justified. "They back everything we did," he said. "It was done in a totally open environment and strictly within the confines of the statute." McDonald did not return a call for comment this week.
The retroactive fee is not the Committee's only complaint.
Its letter, signed by Northport residents Patrick Perpignano, James Flaherty and Eugene Duca, says "... the sewer rents unjustly enrich the village, are not fair and reasonable and do not bear any relationship to the cost in providing the service to the owners, because that cost has already been paid."
Claiming that the capital costs, operation, maintenance and repair of the 81-year-old sewer system has always been funded through property tax assessments, they say, "the sole purpose of Local Law F is to reduce the total cost of the village budget."
Matthews countered that the sewer system's operation is underbudgeted by 25 percent. "We're going to be short $200,000 in our budget ... if we don't get this money that's been underfunded for the sewage treatment plant," he said.
The sewer fee would not cover any general budget deficit, Matthews said; rather, any sewer rent collected would go into a separate fund solely for the operation of the sewer system and refunds to residents who file for adjustments to their bills, should there be an error in the water district's calculations.
Finally, charging based on past consumption is in keeping with what other municipalities do, Matthews said. "How in the world can you figure it out? You've got a crystal ball? How are you going to do it?"
If the village board had enacted Local Law F but delayed implementing the first round of fees until 2011 — basing them on 2010-11 water consumption — village board members would have to find another way of coming up with the money in 2010, according to Matthews. "They would have had to increase taxes to the general population," he said.
Village officials said they designed the sewer fee to be fair to residents who don't use the system.
Until this year, all villagers shouldered 100 percent of system costs through their tax dollars. Even though some residents had no option of hooking up — due to the prohibitive expense of laying more lines and expanding the plant to process additional sewage, Deputy Mayor Henry Tobin said — they nonetheless paid the same sewer tax as people whose households and establishments benefit directly from the system.
Local Law F allowed officials to raise up to 25 percent of the sewer plant's total operating, upgrade and maintenance costs by charging people who use it.
The remaining 75 percent is being distributed among all village taxpayers, which came as happy news to the 80 percent of villagers who are not hooked up to the sewer but felt they were subsidizing its use by others.
Nixon had a suggestion for making the former system — of paying for the sewer entirely through property taxes — work for everyone. "What the [Woodbine] organization would like to see is that all expenses for the village be covered by ad valorem taxes and improve the infrastructure of the sewer system ... so that all Northport residents will benefit," Nixon said. Another benefit to Northport residents of expanding and improving the system, he said, is that the harbor is kept clean.
To those who don't like paying extra for the privilege of using the sewer system, Matthews said, "I'm sorry if they're unhappy about it. I understand people don't like to pay fees but that's the village policy." Those who have questioned that policy may be hearing from the village attorney; Matthews said he hopes that meeting informally with other village officials and A Call to Action Committee representatives would clear up misinformation and clear the horizon of a lawsuit: "It would waste their money and it would waste the village's money in defending it. It would be a big loser for the village."
When asked if a lawsuit is in the making, Nixon said, "Not yet. We're waiting for a response to the letter from the village trustees."