Ongoing bag tag saga no joke for some Napanee residents

The bag tag program as part of the Town of Greater Napanee’s waste removal services has been a topic of controversy for Town residents. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

At the Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee, Councillor Angela Hicks asked the question that is on most Napanee residents’ minds: “Have the tax bills been mailed out?”

The reason this question was so pressing was not because residents are so eager to pay their taxes, but because garbage bag tags are supposed to accompany the bills.

Deputy Treasurer Nathan Murphy’s answer was a firm “kind of.”

He explained how there are various procedures for mailing out bills that are on an instalment basis, or are paid via pre-authorized payments, among other categories.

“So next week [or] the week after, people should be seeing their tax bills and their bag tags on their doorstep,” Murphy said.

Readers will be forgiven if they have missed the saga of the bag tags as it has played out over the last year in Napanee Town Council meetings. A “garbage bag tag” or bag tag is essentially a long sticker with a number on it. The resident wraps the sticker around the neck of the garbage bag to prove that they have paid to have that bag of garbage hauled away.

This pay-as-you-need system was implemented in Napanee as a way of reducing household waste going to landfills.

In 2023, the price of a bag tag was $3 if purchased from the municipality; alternatively, citizens could purchase tags for up to $3.50 each from certain retailers.

At the Thursday, Mar. 30, 2023, budget meeting, it was proposed by Town staff that a tax levy be implemented and bag tags be mailed out to residents: 25 tags with a $100 tax levy for the rest of 2023, increasing to 50 tags with a $200 levy for 2024. This was proposed by staff as a way of meeting the rising cost of garbage management while “reducing the need for subsidization” for garbage collection from other town funds.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Apr. 17, 2023, the Town explained the proposed tax levy, saying that with the process that existed at that time, the revenue from bag tag sales only funded a portion of curbside collection costs for garbage and recycling: “The current process requires the entire tax base to subsidize the remainder (greater than 50 per cent) of the costs for curbside collection. The fixed costs for curbside garbage and recycling collection represent approximately 70 per cent of the annual cost of curbside collection, so regardless [of whether or not] a resident puts garbage or recycling out, we are still paying for the truck to pass by each property.”

The post continued, “If no changes were made to the bag tag system, all property owners would subsidize the curbside collection on their tax bills by $849,000, regardless of whether they dispose of any garbage or recycling through curbside collection. The levy will reduce this amount to $454,000 in 2023 and reduce the subsidy through general taxation to almost $0 in 2024, so that the only people paying for curbside collection are those who have the ability to use it. To achieve a similar result without a special tax levy, bag tag rates would need to be increased to $6.50 per bag tag instead of $4.00.”

Citizens made their concerns known through calls and emails to Council, as well as social media posts. Several citizens made deputations to Council at its Tuesday, Apr. 25, 2023, meeting in opposition to the levy. Reasons varied: for example, seniors living alone pointed out they don’t produce as much garbage as families, while people who had been trying to reduce their waste said this was a step backward for waste reduction.

In the end, Council voted to support a $200 tax levy for garbage pickup.

Implementation became the next hurdle. Since the year was half over, in June 2023, property owners were issued 25 bag tags for each residential property they owned, to be used from July 1, 2023, through December 31, 2023. A $100 special tax levy was added to their tax bills.

Then, on December 7, 2023, Council received a report titled “Funding of the Curbside Collection for Garbage and Recycling in 2024” and directed Town staff to prepare a budget that included a special $200 tax levy for residential property owners (for 50 bag tags at $4 per tag), with the tags to be mailed out with the tax bills in January 2024.

However, in 2023, the report explains, the levy was applied to 5,902 residential properties; at $100 each, this brought in a total revenue of $590,200, which was applied to curbside collection costs, but did not fully fund the program.

The staff report notes that, in 2024, the $200 levy can be applied to a minimum of 5,902 residential properties. The total revenue of $1,180,400 can be applied to the curbside collection costs, which are budgeted at $1,414,246 for both garbage and recycling in 2024. 

The discussion began about four hours and 20 minutes into the over-five-hour special meeting, with acting Treasurer Nathan Murphy detailing the need for an expedient decision to allow tags to be mailed out with the first tax bills in the new year.

At that time, Councillor Bill Martin called attention to the number of properties being issued the levy — 5,902 — saying he had understood it would be over 7,000. Murphy explained that they had applied a particular classification, tax class, which didn’t coincide with the mechanism for counting curbside collection — hence the lower-than-anticipated number.

Martin expressed displeasure with the discrepancies, calling the system “helter-skelter” and pointing out that, even if the decision was made at the current meeting, the new tags wouldn’t be mailed until late January at the earliest. He objected that people would be forced to buy tags for January and then receive tags in the mail with their bills, “so they’re going to have extra bag tags again.”

The motion passed with only Martin opposed.

However, it is now February 1, 2024, and no bag tags have been delivered to homes, just as Martin predicted — leaving some residents with too few and others with not enough to cover the month of January and forced to pay for more. 

Many citizens have expressed their frustration daily on social media, with “maybe they can pay for it with bag tags” becoming a punch line.

Tony Balasevicius is one citizen who fails to find the humour in the situation.

Balasevicius retired from the Canadian Forces in 2013. He is currently a contractor working on various projects for the Department of National Defence. He has published numerous works on a variety of military subjects. Full disclosure: Balasevicius ran for Greater Napanee Council in the last election, representing Ward 1, which encompasses his home in Adolphustown.

“The Town’s decision to mail out bag tags with their 2024 tax assessments at the end of January has resulted in a one-month delay for homeowners getting their tags… This decision was made with no provisions to cover the delay,” except to assume taxpayers would pay for additional tags, Balasevicius pointed out.

The December argument for sending the tags with the tax bills was that it saves the town about $10,000 in postage costs. However, this money-saving move came at a very high price to taxpayers, Balasevicius venturee: “Under this plan, each home is expected to buy an additional four tags at $4 each. Covering the gap comes to $16 a month for each household… With 5,902 residences eligible for the tax levy, taxpayers have had to pay out an extra $94,434 so that the town could save itself postal fees of about $10,000.”

Balasevicius proposed that the best solution “for everyone” would have been to allow bags to be tag-free for January. Under this plan, the town could have sent out 46 rather than 50 bag tags with the property tax notices. 

“If this tax is to continue into 2025, the Town could have adopted the same no-tag policy for this January and mailed out all 50 tags to cover next January’s requirement. Unfortunately, in this case, the solution the Town adopted is one that really only works for the Town,” he expressed.

Because of this, Balasevicius applied to the Town for a tax refund for “overpayment on the Special Tax Levy,” referring to the extra $16 beyond the levy. But Town staff told him, “We are not offering refunds on Greater Napanee bag tags. The current bag tags do not expire. Though residents will receive their tags in late January, we are recommending that residents keep unused tags on hand to be used in early 2025 should the same process continue.” Kingstonist has verified this quote from Town staff having viewed email communications between Balasevicius and the Town.

Next, Balasevicius attempted to make a deputation to Council explaining his position, but was rejected. The Town Clerk wrote, “The Mayor, the Deputy CAO and the Treasurer… have determined that it is primarily a request for Council to reconsider the policy decision that was made at the December meeting, and therefore not eligible to be put forward as a deputation.”

The response from the Town offered little solace to Balasevicius, he expressed.

 “Their view is that I am really talking about a request to reconsider policy,” he said.

“According to section 15.2(h) this topic was just voted on by Council and can’t be reviewed for 12 months. They also point out that the tags we get remain valid so they can be used at anytime. As I use about 40 tags a year, this means little to me.”

Balasevicius pointed out that, when Council ruled to increase and extend the levy back in December 2023, the only financial implication to taxpayers considered was the $200 levy, and not the $16 to cover the costs of garbage pickup in the month of January or until the tags arrived. 

Now, he said, “taxpayers have had to pay twice for the same service. Moreover, as these extra payments were not registered as part of the vote… this oversight is the result of the administration and implementation process, not the actual policy decision the Town keeps holding onto.”  

He also pointed to the Town misunderstanding its tax base, having initially estimated 7,000 households would qualify for the levy, yet “after the first six months, they found that 5,902 residential properties actually qualify for the tax.”

“The levy was imposed to deal with a $840,000 program shortfall in garbage collection,” Balasevicius said. But instead, it “undermined the fundamental premise of using bag tag incentives to reduce garbage.”

Balasevicius asserted that the new format has already increased the garbage being collected.

Back at that December 2023 Council meeting, Councillor Martin said he thought the tag issue had caused people to do less blue box recycling: “They’re throwing blue box material into garbage now because a lot of them have so many tags and want to get rid of them.”

Martin also pointed out at that time, “In 2025, our blue box costs are going to be eliminated… [They’re] going to be borne by the producer of the products. So we want to encourage people to recycle, to get everything we can out of garbage and into recycling.” He added that he hoped that the Town would move toward a green box program in the meantime.

Balacevicius agreed that the bag tag issue “will prevent the success of any organics collection program the Town may wish to bring in.”

“Organics reduction is tied to the success of bag tag reductions,” he said.

More information on the bag tag program and special tax levy can be found on the Town of Greater Napanee website

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