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Poloncarz favors 5-cent paper bag fee, critics oppose 'tax'

A new state law gives counties the option to charge shoppers a 5-cent fee for each paper bag used in the checkout line, and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz wants to impose the fee.

It would start when the state law banning single-use plastic bags takes effect in March.

"It’s there as an incentive to get people to use reusable bags," Poloncarz said. "It’s all about environmental protection."

Others oppose the idea.

"It’s just another burden placed on residents," said Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, who is running against Poloncarz for the county executive's seat. "I oppose this tax on residents who are already being nickeled and dimed to death. It most impacts, quite frankly, the poor."

The Niagara County Legislature unanimously voted against imposing the fee.

County legislatures can decide to opt into the 5-cent paper bag fee, but the law also allows city councils to decide. So if the Erie County Legislature decides against the fee, for example, the Buffalo Common Council could pass it for the city. If Erie County opts in, the paper bag fee would be applied to Buffalo and the county's other cities.

Poloncarz said he has not yet spoken with Erie County legislators about the fee but hopes to persuade a majority of them to approve it.

Poloncarz said he believes critics aren't aware of the law's language, which requires proceeds from the 5-cent fee to be used for environmental purposes.

For every 5 cents collected, 3 cents would go into the state's Environmental Protection Fund. The other 2 cents would be used by the county to purchase reusable bags for residents. The law does not allow the money to be allocated for just any county expense.

The goal, Poloncarz said, is to provide incentives for shoppers to stop using single-use bags.

"It’s about promoting the use of reusable bags and protecting the environment, and I think that’s a worthy cause," he said.

The state law bans the use of plastic bags by retailers starting March 1, but it includes exceptions. The law exempts plastic bags used for food carryout, newspaper wrappers, bulk food items, wrapping uncooked or raw meats, and bulk-sold bags like trash bags and food storage bags.

Members of the Republican-support minority caucus in the Erie County Legislature introduced a resolution earlier this month seeking to reject the paper-bag fee. It was referred to committee.

"You can call it a fee. You can call it a tax," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "Either way, it's a additional money that’s coming out of taxpayers' pockets. It’s just another money grab by New York State on people who are already overtaxed and over-fee'd and trying to make ends meet."

The Democratic majority has not yet taken a position. Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin, D-Buffalo, said the issue has not yet come up among colleagues. She added, however, that she is open to committee discussion on the issue and expressed concern about the fee's effect on poor residents.

"Something like that is going to heavily impact my community," she said.

The law stipulates the 5-cent fee would not apply to anyone receiving food stamps.

Poloncarz said he believes most county residents agree with him that a 5-cent fee to protect the environment is worth pursuing, especially when the fee can be avoided by consumers bringing reusable bags with them when they shop. He noted that grocery stores like Aldi, Price Rite and Save-a-Lot already charge customers who don't bring their own bags.

Dixon said it's not an either-or issue, and she expressed skepticism about how the fee revenue would be spent.

"By opposing a tax, we are not opposing to protecting the environment," she said.

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