Come on Down!

TELEVISION HAS A PERVASIVE influence on our society, but who would have thought that a state appeals court would take a cue from CBS' “The Price is Right,” the longest running network game show. As the game is played, a contestant wins if his or her bid is closest to, but not more than, the actual price of a prize.

Officials in Halifax County, N.C., must feel like losing contestants on the show after a court ruled that the county's solid waste fee is unlawful. Applying a slavishly arithmetical interpretation of state law, an appellate court, in effect, faulted the county for overbidding on its solid waste expenses.

In June 2001, the county commissioners imposed a $57 solid waste availability fee on all parcels of land. Along with their tax bill, residents and real property owners received a pamphlet explaining that the county intended to use most of the fee for general fund expenditures with the balance earmarked for solid waste facilities. Later, after learning about certain state law limits, county commissioners voted to direct staff to see that no revenue derived from the fee was used in the general fund.

Several county residents and entities that own real property filed suit against the county, alleging that the fee violated state law because the amount collected exceeded the county's cost of operating its solid waste facilities. The plaintiffs also requested a preliminary injunction ordering the county to stop all fee collection efforts until the matter was resolved. The county denied all of the allegations.

The county superior court judge denied the request for an injunction, and set the matter for trial. He eventually ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, enjoined the county from collecting the fee and ordered the county to refund any fees the plaintiffs had paid. The North Carolina Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court decision.

According to the evidence presented at the trial, during fiscal year 2001-2002, the fee generated more than $1.93 million in revenue. The county claimed that its cost to operate its solid waste facilities during that period was $1.88 million. The plaintiffs disputed the county's figures, asserting that the actual cost for operating the facilities and the landfill was only $800,000.

The appeals court found the difference to be irrelevant. “[W]hat is important is that both cost figures … are less than the revenue generated by the fee,” the opinion stated. State law allows a county to impose a fee on all improved property that benefits from solid waste collection and disposal services made available by the county.

Halifax County conceded that the revenue from the fee exceeded the cost of operating the facilities, but by a mere 2.7 percent. “It would be unreasonable to expect a county to pinpoint its costs and revenues exactly, one year in advance,” it argued — to no avail.

“We find this argument unpersuasive,” said the appellate court, citing a 1999 state supreme court interpretation of a statute that required strict equality of fees and costs for storm drainage systems. “The phrase ‘may not exceed’ … does not mean that fees and costs need only be ‘reasonably related’ to one another as [the county] contends.”

[Manning v. County of Halifax, No. COA03-1118 (N.C.App., Sept. 7, 2004) Unpublished.]

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail:

The columnist is aRockville, Md., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.