LEGAL: Disposal Costs, Residents Pay

Homeowners in Clay County, Fla., must pay a special assessment for solid waste facilities, under a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court [Harris, et al. v. Wilson, et al., No. 86,210 (March 20, 1997)].

In 1992, county officials enacted an ordinance imposing a special assessment for county solid waste facilities. The assessment, amounting to $63 per dwelling unit, applied only to residential properties in unincorporated areas.

The affected homeowners challenged the assessment by taking the county to court. The county promptly asked the court to summarily rule in its favor, submitting affidavits from the county manager (a former solid waste director) and from a consultant who helped the county prepare the assessment. The affidavits outlined the assessment adoption process and asserted that the assessment's amount was apportioned among the affected properties in an amount equal to or less than the benefit received by such properties.

The affidavits also mentioned how non-assessed properties paid for solid waste services: The costs of processing and disposing of solid waste from properties within municipalities and from commercial and other non-residential properties within the unincorporated area are collected through tipping fees at the disposal site, which fees fairly represent the cost of handling the waste from such properties; the decision not to impose the assessment on commercial properties was based on the uneven amounts of solid waste generated by such properties.

The trial court also reviewed the ordinance adopting the assessment. The ordinance incorporated specific findings on why the county did not impose the assessment within municipalities and how affected residential properties were benefitted by the processing and disposal of the solid waste they generated.

As part of its motion for summary judgment, the county also furnished a copy of the official assessment resolution, which included findings on (a) the need for solid waste disposal facilities to handle solid waste generated on improved residential property, (b) closure and long-term care of facilities, (c) potential increase in value to improved residential land and (d) the enhancement of environmentally responsible use and enjoyment of residential land.

The trial court rejected certain documents offered by the plaintiffs to oppose the county motion and summarily ruled in favor of the county.

An intermediate level appeals court upheld the trial court's validation of the assessment, ruling that a special assessment can be levied through- out a community to pay for solid waste services if the assessment, for one thing, provides a special benefit to the properties assessed and, for another, is properly apportioned.

By a five to two margin, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court decision, ruling that the county's findings of special benefit and fair apportionment were not arbitrary.

Quoting from the Final Assessment Resolution, the high court focused on the county's own statement of its motivations and purposes:

The county must, by law, provide solid waste facilities for all residents, and it is only fair that the associated costs be shared by all residents. The only way for the county to minimize each resident's solid waste cost is to ensure that every resident participates in funding solid waste disposal and recycling services.

Finding similarities to a 1995 decision where they upheld a special assessment for polluted stormwater run-off treatment services, the justices noted that in both circumstances the local government was legislatively required to properly handle a potential pollution-causing problem and authorized to fund the work by assessment. At the same time, the benefitted properties were contributors to the problem, and the governments were unable, by other means, to pay for solving it.

What constitutes a special benefit is a matter for the legislative body that courts should not overturn without clear evidence of "arbitrary action or plain abuse," said the court. "[W]e agree with the trial and [appeal] courts' determination that Clay County did not act arbitrarily in finding that the properties in question were specially benefitted by the provision of disposal services," the majority opinion concluded.

As for the apportionment issue, the high court agreed with the County's reasons for excluding incorporated areas and commercial property from the assessment, noting that "other efficient means [existed] for assuring payment for the disposal of those property owners' solid waste ..."

Ultimately, however, the method of apportionment, as the majority of the justices saw it, was acceptable because the assessment represents the actual cost of providing disposal services and facilities to the properties subject to the assessment, the cost is equally distributed among the affected properties, and has a "rational relationship" to the benefits received by such properties.