Voters to decide bag fee issue

Town Board will put 5-cent plastic/paper bag fee on November ballot

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By Linda Smith Hancharick

— Let the people decide.

After three public hearings and receiving input from dozens of residents, the Warwick Town Board decided to give voters the final say about whether to put a 5-cent fee on all carryout bags, plastic and paper, in the town, not including the villages.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort considering this issue,” said Supervisor Michael Sweeton, before suggesting the board put the issue on the ballot in November. “What I have come to understand is people are split on this issue.”

Sweeton pointed to two times that Warwick residents voted to impose taxes on themselves — for the Purchase of Development Rights and the Community Preservation Fund.

“I think personally, for me, on issues in the past where there is a fee, tax, call it whatever you want, we have asked residents to weigh in on that,” Sweeton said. “My preference is to have residents have that opportunity.”

Board members agreed.

“When it’s not overwhelmingly one way and it effects everyone in the town, let the public decide what to do,” said Councilman James Gerstner.

“I would agree to a referendum,” added Councilman Russell Kowal. “We’ve gotten comments from both sides. It’s an important issue. The only way to reasonably settle this is with a referendum.”

Disappointment from supportersThere were about 15 supporters of the measure in the audience. They have been there all along, encouraging the board to think about the environment and to be a leader in the county and surrounding area on this issue.

All thanked the board for their work, but were disappointed they did not move forward.

“We are ruining our planet,” said resident Sherrie DeBergh, a supporter of the fee. She suggested the board look at the bigger picture and look at the environment of Warwick, the country and the world. Putting a fee on the bag, she said, makes people think about the impact of that bag.

She asked that the referendum stress the importance of this for the environment.

That can’t happen. Town attorney Jay Myrow said the referendum must be neutral.

Mary Makofske thanked the board for all of the work they did on the issue but said she wished the board itself would have made the decision. She noted this is a complicated issue and that concerns her.

She and her fellow supporters, many are members of Sustainable Warwick, will work to educate the public on the importance of reducing disposable bag use between now and the November election.

‘Nobody has to pay this tax’Supporters of this action call the 5 cents a fee; opponents call it a tax. Chairman of Sustainable Warwick Geoff Howard drove that point home by saying this is a tax people choose to pay or not.

“Nobody has to pay this tax,” said Howard. “Nobody. If you choose to take a plastic bag, you pay the five cents. If you bring reusable bags, you pay nothing. The purpose is not to get people to pay for plastic bags.

“I know you can’t advocate one side or another (in the referendum) but I ask you,” Howard added, “whenever you hear a constituent say ‘I don’t like this tax,’ say ‘then don’t pay it. You don’t have to pay it.’ We don’t want you to pay it. We never wanted you to pay it. We want you to use instead of 11 carryout plastic bags, use two or three reusable bags. It’s not a tax.”

When Councilman Mickey Shuback said that people have told him they will go elsewhere to shop if this law passes, Sweeton reminded him that’s not a concern of the two supermarkets in town because they are in favor of this.

Resident Bill Greene urged the supervisor and board members to share their expertise with the voters between now and November.

“My opinion is others need to hear from you,” said Greene. “It’s an issue where your moral leadership can come into play. You guys have the expertise. I would urge you not to be neutral.”

‘Complete faith and trust’While Howard and the others in the group were disappointed that the board didn’t adopt this fee outright, they did vow to educate people between now and November to explain the impact on the local environment and the larger picture.

“We are disappointed in the time delay,” said Howard, “but we are confident in the eventual outcome.”

“We will work to educate people,” said Christy Erfer.

Sweeton sounded confident too.

“I have complete faith and trust in the people of Warwick to make the right decision.”

If this local law is adopted, it would take effect in April 2019.

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