Taxpayers to receive refunds on $18 fee

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

There’s good news and even better news for Carroll County taxpayers who paid an $18 fee to the Ozark Mountain Solid Waste District along with their property taxes in 2019.

The good news is that taxpayers will receive a refund for those 2019 payments. The even better news is that the $18 fee will never be charged again after a successful class action lawsuit that resulted in the fee being declared an illegal exaction.

The fee, which was collected in Carroll, Baxter, Boone, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties, was intended to repay bondholders who purchased $12,340,000 in bonds issued by the solid waste district in October 2005 to finance the purchase of the North Arkansas Board of Regional Sanitation (NABORS) Landfill in Baxter County. The assessment, which had been expected to continue for 30 years or more, also was intended to repay the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for up to $16.5 million in costs related to closing and cleaning up the landfill.

The solid waste district included all six counties before Carroll County withdrew to form its own solid waste district in 2019.

The $18 fee was collected under an order from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox, who presided over a case in which Bank of the Ozarks (now Bank OZK), acting as a trustee for the bondholders, sued the solid waste district. Fox’s order followed the recommendation of Geoffrey Treece, a Little Rock attorney whom the judge appointed to serve as a receiver for the solid waste district.

Fayetteville attorneys Matt Bishop and Wendy Howerton filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Berryville resident Paul Summers in Carroll County Circuit Court in May 2018. They later filed similar lawsuits in the other five counties. The lawsuits sought to have collection of the fee halted and for property owners who had already paid the fee to be reimbursed. Bishop and Howerton filed an amended complaint in Carroll County in July 2019.

In March 2020, Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson ruled that the $18 fee was an improper tax, although he ordered that the fee continue to be collected until any appeals were adjudicated.

In June 2020, the solid waste authority’s board of directors voted not to participate in any appeals and ADEQ said in a court filing that it would not claim an interest in the approximately $2.34 million that already had been collected through the fee.

In August 2020, Fox ordered that the fee no longer be collected. He also ordered Treece not to proceed with any appeals. That same month, Bank OZK — which served as trustee for the bondholders – said in a letter to Fox that it would not appeal the circuit court rulings that the fee was illegal. Fox ordered that money collected through the $18 fee in 2019 be returned to the taxpayers, but the legal battle over the money collected in 2017 and 2018 is ongoing.

“I just decided we might as well get the 2019 money back to people and then we’ll fight for the ’17 and ’18 [money] when and if it comes,” Bishop said. “I’ve still got, I would say conservatively, another two years of fighting in Little Rock … so it’s not near over for me. But, like I said, at least we can get some of the money back.”

Under the terms of the refund plan, taxpayers who paid the $18 fee in 2019 will receive $10.50, with payments going to the address on the invoice that each taxpayer received from the county. Bishop Law Firm and Howerton Law Firm will receive $6 from each refund for attorney’s fees and $1.50 from each refund for costs incurred. Summers will receive $10,000 as the class representative.

Taxpayers who paid the $18 fee in 2019 and whose address has changed should contact Bishop at 3739 N. Steele Blvd., Ste. 380, Fayetteville, AR, 72703.

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