Local leaders kept eye on special bills
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 3, 2007 1:45 PM
As state legislators worked furiously this week to rush through a flurry of bills before adjourning late Thursday night, county officials kept a close eye on the fates of three very different bills.
The biggest last-minute bill approved Thursday, the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007, was one that the county Board of Commissioners and others had lobbied against since its introduction.
Simply put, county Solid Waste Director Tim Rogers explained, the legislation will make landfills more expensive to operate -- though in Wayne the impact won't be felt nearly as hard as in other areas of the state.
The bill was approved Thursday in response to a yearlong moratorium on new landfills that expired hours earlier.
Its primary focus is on upgrading permit, construction and siting requirements for future landfills, in part by establishing buffers around environmentally sensitive areas. But it's not just landfill operators that will bear the brunt of those increased costs. The bill also creates a $2-per-ton state surcharge on trash, with the proceeds going toward cleanup efforts at abandoned dumps and hazardous waste sites. Funds also are scheduled to help local governments manage their own trash.
The additional charge will likely increase Wayne's tipping fee from $23 to $25 come July 1, 2008. However, said a clearly relieved Rogers, Wayne County is exempt from many of the new regulations.
"It looks like we're going to be exempted from the new regulations since we already had this land and had it permitted for a landfill," he said of the county's Dudley site. "That was a huge plus there. That's going to help more than anything else."
Also left out of the final version was language that would have required liners in construction debris fields and double liners in regular landfills. Freed of those regulations, Rogers continued, the more than 400-acre site should be able to serve Wayne County for many more years.
"Theoretically we should be good for another 75 years, and I think we could realistically say we have another 50 years where we are," he said. "I think we'll be OK."
The results of an omnibus elections bill also were more or less pleasing to county Board of Elections Director Gary Sims. The 38 new rules are in addition to a bill passed earlier in the session allowing people to register to vote and vote at one-stop sites on the same day.
Much of the new bill includes technical changes regarding ballot printing and ballot coding -- both follow-ups to decisions over the last two years to standardize election systems in every city and county.
"It makes election procedures uniform across the state," he explained. "I think a lot of it also takes what is generally practiced and actually puts it into law."
The bill also criminalizes a wider range election law violations, including those involving campaign finances, illegal voter registration and breaking ballot secrecy.
The problem, though, Sims said, is not the new laws themselves, but the simple fact that it's just a whole new set of changes.
"It doesn't seem like we've had two elections with a uniform set of standards from one election to the next," Sims continued. "I think the intent is really good and these are some positive steps, but at some point we need to start locking down some uniform procedures.
"This puts us on a tight timeline, but one way or another, we're going to make it work because we don't delay elections."
Some of the biggest changes:
*Earlier distribution of voter guides for judicial elections.
*The possibility that after the 2010 census, states and counties will use that information to redraw district lines so that precincts aren't so fractured.
*Creating campaign buffer zones around one-stop polling places, just like regular Election Day precincts.
*Giving leeway to the state Board of Elections to allow voters to recast their votes if they are lost or if the voters were given the wrong ballot style.
*Requiring the state Board of Elections, the Department of Corrections and the Administrative Office of the Courts to inform ex-offenders when their voting rights have been restored.
*Requiring county election offices to provide voters the opportunity to correct their registrations if the I.D. numbers provided don't match those in the state driver's license and Social Security databases.
*Allowing the county election board to choose any one-stop voting site, regardless of whether it is funded through tax revenues -- as was previously the requirement -- as long as it meets the approval of the state board.
Not only did legislators make the remaining quarter-cent sales tax from 2001 permanent, they also approved an income tax credit for low-income households, while eliminating the 2001 temporary increase for taxpayers in the highest income bracket.
They also made several important adjustments to the state's property tax laws.
The primary change raises the homestead exclusion from $20,000 to $25,000, or 50 percent of the appraised home value -- whichever is more -- for qualifying homeowners who are either senior citizens or totally and permanently disabled.
The exclusion allows those residents to be taxed only on the remaining portion of the home's value. For example, if a home is worth $40,000 and the person qualifies for the $25,000 exclusion, he then only has to pay taxes on the remaining $15,000.
The second change -- called a circuit breaker -- will allow some low-income residents to decide to defer a portion of their property tax payments for up to three years.
"As far as the exclusion, it'll effect us some. It'll have some impact, but I don't think it'll be a big impact," said county tax administrator David Ward. "The circuit breaker, though, could be a big impact, but there's no way to gauge how much at this time."
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