Recycling station a source of tension between Rockingham, Westminster

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WESTMINSTER — The friendly relationship between two neighboring towns has gotten a bit testy over the Rockingham Recycling Center.

The town of Rockingham and the village of Bellows Falls in recent days have taken steps to appeal a new tax assessment on the recycling and transfer station that the town of Westminster (where the center is located) sent last month.

The three municipalities had an agreement dating back to 1982 that Westminster and its residents could use the facility free of charge and the town of Westminster wouldn't tax the center at full value.

That all ended this spring when Rockingham decided it needed additional revenue to help pay for the $190,000 operating costs of the center, and decided to charge Westminster residents $35 a year to use the center.

Rockingham Select Board Chairman Peter Golec said Monday it was Westminster who broke the agreement. "No one is paying that $190,000 a year but the taxpayers of Rockingham," he said. Golec said Rockingham instituted a sticker system last year because so many out-of-town people were using Rockingham's center.

He said Rockingham was "the cheapest around." Last year, the fee was $25.

Westminster Town Manager Russell Hodgkins said Rockingham broke the 1982 contract when it decided to charge residents for the right to use the center.

"They broke the contract," he said. "Since the facility is in Westminster, now it's taxable."

The history of the recycling center is a bit convoluted: the center itself is located in the town of Westminster on land owned by the village of Bellows Falls and used to be the old Bellows Falls dump.

Currently the town of Rockingham operates the center and has paid for all the improvements and requires all users to have a sticker. Rockingham residents get their stickers for free.

Westminster residents have several options for getting rid of their trash. The town has curbside trash pickup, usually limited to six garbage bags a week, Hodgkins said. The Rockingham center is used by residents for "big stuff," such as old refrigerators, freezers, and stoves. Golec said there is no written contract between the three municipalities, but only a "handshake" agreement.

"It's not a feud," said Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright, who said the village and Rockingham had exercised their rights to grieve, or appeal, the assessment of the center.

Westminster send a notice to both Bellows Falls for the land assessment and a notice to Rockingham for the "improvements" on the land — the two trash compactors, various sheds and buildings and a scale.

Both were big jumps, according to Wright, who said Rockingham funds the recycling center and transfer station entirely, and pays the $1,600 tax bill to Westminster.

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Doug Oftedahl, one of Westminster's three listers, said the Bellows Falls-owned land was proposed to be assessed at $49,400, while the Rockingham "improvements" on the land were assessed at $77,100.

Neither Oftefall nor Hodgkins would say what those assessments would mean for a tax bill.

Wright and Golec said their two boards acted quickly on Monday morning in the case of the village trustees, and Saturday morning on the part of the Rockingham Select Board, to file a grievance by the noon deadline on Monday. Golec and Wright said the grievances were filed by the deadline.

Golec said it was possible the grievance hearing could be held as early as Tuesday.

Hodgkins said the town had asked the New England Municipal Resource Center to assess the Rockingham center and come up with a value.

He said the NEMRC people contacted several other municipalities to get a good idea of costs.

"The assessment seems onerous and reactionary after Rockingham instituted the recycling sticker cost to Westminster residents of $35 per year," said Wright. "The village of Bellows Falls is grieving the land reassessment value."

Wright said she felt the $35 a year fee for any Westminster resident was "a little onerous," but she said the village knew there was going to be a change once the town of Rockingham Select Board voted for the change.

"We knew this was going to happen," she said.

Wright said that of the 7.1 acre site, only two acres were flat enough to be usable.

She said she believed Westminster listers made at least one procedural error in the assessment, and the town also sent the new appraisal notice after the state-set deadline.

The village of Bellows Falls and Westminster also had a disagreement earlier this year over the water and sewer service provided to residents of North Westminster.

She said Westminster wanted the village to bill those residents directly, while the village currently bills the town.

"This doesn't improve our relationship," she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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