Trash fee lawsuit scrapped

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After board of supervisors made changes to a trash collection fee ordinance, a Grayson citizen says she plans to drop her lawsuit against the county.

By Brian Funk, Editor

INDEPENDENCE — The Grayson Board of Supervisors’ recent changes to the wording of the county’s trash collection ordinance has also cleaned up a potential legal mess.
Shortly after Grayson County enacted a new solid waste ordinance two years ago, Amelia Bland Waller of Elk Creek filed a lawsuit against the county, contending that the charge was a tax instead of a fee because Grayson, as a utility provider, cannot charge a fee “for services not rendered or desired.”
The other basis for the lawsuit, Waller said, was that “I thought it improper for the   county to criminalize nonpayment of a utility fee, since no private utility  
provider can threaten fines and incarceration for an unpaid bill.”
Earlier this month, the county supervisors amended the ordinance to say that citizens will no longer face a criminal charge for non-payment of their trash collection fee.
This came at the suggestion of the county attorney.
The change removes the misdemeanor charge for non-payment and makes it a civil matter instead of criminal.
The board left language in the ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor for things like littering or dumping, but made it clear that the misdemeanor charge will not apply to things like non-payment or other violations of the ordinance, like putting too much trash in a can.
These changes prompted Waller, an attorney, to write to The Gazette and state her intention to drop the lawsuit.
“My lawsuit was motivated by my heart-felt desire to protect the important principle that   there are limits on what government can do,” Waller wrote.
“After two years of litigation and careful consideration of the law, I have concluded that the county does have the authority to charge a trash fee/tax/whatever they want to call it for the unoccupied residence that I own, and I have paid the fees in full that have accrued for my property.
“That does not mean that I have concluded that the county has the authority to charge the fee for all other unoccupied residences in Grayson County. But those are not my bones to pick.”
Waller said she has been contacted by several owners of unoccupied or seasonally  occupied residences in Grayson County who feel the same as she did, but doesn’t intend to speak for them.
“The Grayson County Board of Supervisors has now agreed to ‘decriminalize’ non-payment of the so-called ‘trash fee,’ and this resolves my second issue with the ordinance. Consequently, I plan to dismiss my lawsuit in the near future.”
Waller commended the supervisors “for their careful reconsideration of the solid waste ordinance” and thanked concerned citizens “participated in and paid attention to the  process.”
“Vigilance remains the price of freedom,” she wrote.
In 2010, Waller received a notice and copy of a warrant in debt for not paying the trash fee. Around that same time, several Grayson citizens brought their concerns to the supervisors after receiving a notice of delinquent trash fees and a copy of a civil warrant, even though they say they were not billed for garbage service.
According to the suit, Waller and her sister inherited land from their father and no one has lived in the residence there for about 20 years. The home is not for rent or sale, she said, and is not intended to be lived in.
She said she does not need trash collection and claimed that the county has never collected nor disposed of trash from that home.
Waller appealed the trash fee assessment, but her appeal was denied by county officials on grounds that the house “appears to be vacated, not abandoned, and is deemed habitable.”
Waller said in the lawsuit that the denial of her appeal was “arbitrary and capricious,” as other similar Grayson properties were declared “not habitable,” so property owners were not charged the fee.
The suit filed in Grayson County Circuit Court names the county, the board of supervisors, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet, Assistant County Administrator Mitch Smith, Public Works Director Jonathan Luper and Treasurer Junior Young.
Waller asked that the court issue an injunction to restrain Grayson from assessing or collecting trash fees from her.

Staff writer Tina E. Vaughn also contributed to this article.