Commissioners Debate Solid Waste Fee Increases

SNOW HILL — It may soon cost more to dump trash and other materials at the Worcester County landfill and its satellite transfer stations, as county officials continue to wrestle with declining revenues and growing expenses at the facilities.

The County Commissioners this week got a look at a list of recommendations for reconciling Worcester’s solid waste enterprise fund budget for fiscal year 2012 that include fairly significant increases in tipping fees and permits for users of the landfill and transfer stations around the county along with some proposed reductions in the level of service. Worcester’s solid waste division is an enterprise fund, meaning it is designed to sustain itself through fees collected for permits and services.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the solid waste fund has not been able to sustain itself, leading to a series of proposed increases in tipping fees and permit costs. County Enterprise Fund Controller Jennifer Savage laid out the dismal news for the commissioners on Tuesday.

“It’s a matter of reducing services or increasing revenue,” she said. “It’s a million dollar operation that brings in $300,000. That’s just not sustainable. It’s a vicious cycle, but somebody has to pay for it. We just can’t continue to run it this way.”

Included in a list of recommendations handed down by the county’s solid waste advisory board are an increase in the tipping fees at the landfill from the current $65 per ton to $70 per ton for municipal waste and an increase from the current $75 per ton to $80 per ton for construction and demolition debris. Perhaps even more onerous, the homeowner transfer station permits would increase from the current $50 for the first permit to $100, although the latter would include a second vehicle covered by the same permit.

Savage acknowledged the increase was substantial, but pointed under the current system, residents often buy the one $50 permit and pass it around with their friends and neighbors, resulting in an increased demand for services without an in-kind increase in revenue derived from the dumping permits.

Savage said the largest number of abuses come from the construction sector.

“We have lots and lots of abuse by contractors,” she said. “Do we know who they are? We have a pretty good idea.”

Another proposal on the table is reducing expenses by reducing hours at the various transfer stations around the county. The solid waste advisory board recommended closing the transfer stations on Wednesdays and Thursdays, typically the two slowest days.

However, the commissioners were less than keen on reducing the level of service provided while increasing the fees at the same time. They predicted the trash and debris would end up along the sides of roads and in ditches and wooded areas.

“I think you’re going to see a whole lot of trash dumped on the side of the road if you follow through with some of these increases and closures,” said Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw. “Whatever money you save, you’ll have to pay the road crews to go out and pick it up.”

Commissioner James Purnell agreed an increase in fees and an associated reduction in services could lead to litter-strewn county highways and roads.

“I don’t think we should close these transfer stations, even if it’s only for one or two days,” he said. “They’re going to put that trash somewhere, and it’s not going to be on the streets of Ocean City. It’s going on the street where I live.”

Savage said she understood the commissioners’ concerns, but reiterated the solid waste enterprise fund could not sustain itself without some compromises. A major expense for the county is operating the central landfill, and when each cell becomes full, the county has to pay millions of dollars to open a new one.

For years, new cells at the landfill were funded largely by user fees through permits and tipping charges, but with growing losses in the department, the county might be forced to finance landfill expansions in the near future, according to Savage.

“If we continue to run at a $1.4 million loss, we’ll have to bond the next phase of the landfill,” she said. “I’m not trying to scare you. That’s just the reality.”

Lockfaw said he understood the need for the fee hikes, but thought the proposals on the table were too steep.

“I think you might get by with a minor increase for the homeowners, but this just seems like too much to me,” he said.

However, Savage explained even with the proposed increases, Worcester’s fees were still much lower than those in neighboring counties.

“Even at $100, it’s still the best value,” she said. “It’s the best deal anywhere around.”

Public Works Director John Tustin agreed Worcester provides the biggest bang for the buck in terms of its solid waste handling.

“The level of service is exceptional compared to the other counties on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “We’d like to be able to continue to do that, but there are some tough decisions to make.”

The county has scheduled a public hearing on the solid waste budget and the proposed changes for June 7.