Lawsuit contends recycling charges are ‘taxes’ not permitted under Hancock Amendment

Four suits currently pending on waste management code.

By EVAN YOUNG

A lawsuit that contends charges St. Louis County residents pay for recycling service violate state law recently was appealed from circuit court.

Four unincorporated county residents allege the recycling charges they pay their waste hauler are “taxes” and are not permitted under the state Constitution’s Hancock Amendment.

That amendment requires voter approval before political subdivisions can levy any tax, license or fee.

Plaintiffs Ana McDonald of Affton; Lucille Degeare of Spanish Lake; David Birtley of Breckenridge Hills; and James Grace of Fenton filed the class-action petition last June against the county and the three waste haulers that exclusively serve eight trash districts in unincorporated areas — Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services.

County officials and the haulers argue the recycling charges aren’t taxes because the county does not receive the proceeds from them.

Circuit Judge Colleen Dolan in March granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, but attorneys for the plaintiffs appealed the case April 23 to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

The county may not see the revenue collected from the recycling charges, but it still created the ordinance that imposes them, plaintiffs’ attorney David Butsch said.

“It’s a government ordinance that says you have to pay this. You have to contract with a waste hauler,” he said. “Whether they (the county) do it directly or hire someone else to act as their agent, it’s nonetheless a tax.”

The county’s waste management code re-quires all residents to have a waste collection agreement with a trash hauler. In unincorporated areas, residents must use the hauler assigned by the county to serve their trash district.

The code also establishes a “minimum level” of trash service that all haulers in the county must provide: once-per-week trash and recycling collection, and twice-yearly bulk pickup.

The recycling lawsuit is one of four cases pending in circuit and state courts against the county’s waste management code.

The other three suits focus on the county’s establishment of the eight trash districts in unincorporated areas.

In the first case, hauler American Eagle Waste Industries and residents Greg Porter and Brett Buchanan contend county residents should have been able to vote on the trash district program.

A hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 16, before Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace.

In the second lawsuit, American Eagle Waste, Meridian Waste Services and Waste Management of Missouri contend the county did not give waste haulers two years’ notice before establishing the trash district program. The notice is required by a state law that was enacted after the county declared its intent to establish the districts.

While the state appellate court previously ruled the county cannot “override” the state statute, the county maintains the law cannot be applied retroactively.

The litigation recently returned to circuit court from federal court.

A motion hearing is scheduled before Wallace at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27, and a trial is set for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 31, 2011.

A third suit — a class-action petition by Cathy Armbruster of Lemay, Paul Marquis of Fenton and Mike Weber of Oakville against the county and the three trash district haulers — is pending in the state appellate court.

The plaintiffs in that case say the program is illegal and want the haulers to refund residents all the fees they’ve collected since they began servicing the trash districts in the fall of 2008.