No Gain, No Pay-In

IDAHO LAW DOES NOT ALLOW A COUNTY to charge a user fee to county residents who do not actually use the county solid waste disposal facility, but if such a fee were lawfully imposed, it would not violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, according to a ruling by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Waters Garbage collects waste from residential, commercial and industrial customers in Shoshone County, Idaho. For many years, the county has operated a transfer station from which waste is shipped to a BFI disposal site in Montana. The county built the facility by issuing bonds secured by an ad valorem tax on property within the county. Additionally, the county has charged a disposal fee on all residences and commercial properties. Residences pay a flat monthly fee, and businesses pay a fee based on their past waste generation levels.

Until 1999, Waters took the waste it collected to the transfer station for disposal without charge. Thereafter, it opened its own transfer station following a successful court battle with the county. From its new facility, Waters ships the waste to the BFI Montana site. As it would not be using the county facility, Waters asked the county to exempt its customers from the disposal fee. In fact, the generators refused to pay both Waters and the county for hauling and disposal services. However, the county declined to abate the fee.

Waters sued the county, alleging that it had no legal authority to charge a disposal fee to non-users of its facility and that the fee unlawfully interferes with interstate commerce. With no facts in dispute, each side filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law. After hearing arguments from both sides, the trial court ruled in favor of the county and dismissed the suit. Waters appealed.

The state high court found that state law authorized counties to fund the operations of solid waste disposal systems by “collect[ing] fees from the users of the … facilities.” Waters' customers pay the waste disposal fee, but “[n]one of [their] waste will go to the [c]ounty transfer station,” noted the court. Thus, ruled the court, the county cannot charge fees to these “non-users of the … facilities.”

Having invalidated the disposal fee on state law grounds, the justices were not obliged to address the constitutional issue but nevertheless did so. They rejected Waters' contention that the fees were unconstitutional because county residents will use the public transfer station rather than pay extra for disposal elsewhere by another entity. For one thing, noted the court, the ordinance neither requires the processing of solid waste at a designated transfer station nor impedes its movement out of state. For another, states and localities may favor their own facilities by subsidizing them through taxes and fees without violating the Commerce Clause.

The columnist is aWashington, D.C., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

[Waters Garbage v. Shoshone County, No. 27532, 2003 WL 1847888, April 10, 2003]

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