County Studies Solid Waste Revenue Loss

SNOW HILL — Hoping to avoid the need to bond future landfills, which could trap the county in a cycle of debt, the Worcester County Commissioners are considering options for cutting down on the loss of revenue generated by its Solid Waste Department Tuesday.

While nothing was decided on, a tax fee for recycling, increases to tipping fees, and a pay-as-you-throw program are all still on the table, among others.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve financially,” said Enterprise Fund Controller Jennifer Savage.

Because of inherent costs, recycling programs have always been marked as a revenue loss by Worcester. At best, the program seeks to recoup as much of its cost as possible, while making up for the discrepancy by generating a profit in other areas of solid waste whenever possible. While the system worked well enough, the 2008 national recession and Ocean City’s subsequent withdrawal from the program saw Worcester losing more money from recycling than ever before.

The meeting Tuesday wasn’t the first time the commission has tried to stem the bleeding of revenue associated with recycling. During their budget session last spring, the commission was able to reduce the loss from solid waste from over a million dollars to about $750,000 per year. However, the drain is still significant enough that the commissioners are scrambling for ways to generate more money.

“The big part of the hole is the recycling part of it,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “How are you going to fill this hole? It’s $750,000.”

Adding to the pressure to find solutions is the fact that the county is running out of landfill space, which means a new cell must be opened, or an old one reworked. With four cells already in operation, opening Cell 5 could be Worcester’s next option. However, the amount needed for the cell will be $10 million by 2015. While some funding has already been set aside, operating at a loss of $750,000 per year is quickly draining the department’s cash reserves.

Instead of directly financing Cell 5, as the county has done with the previous four, Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason informed the commission it could pay for the cell by bonding it. However, he warned the bond, which is in effect a loan, could trap Worcester in debt. Each cell, explained Mason, is only good for about eight years, while a bond usually lasts for at least 15.

Commissioner Louise Gulyas wondered about the possibility of mining out the already filled Cell 1, so that the space could be reused. Public Works Director John Tustin acknowledged that the county is working on mining Cell 1 while simultaneously preparing for Cell 5.

“We’re going down a concurrent path right now and we’re going to see who wins,” he said.

According to Tustin, at the current rate of mining, Cell 1 could be usable within five to six years, past the 2015 date for Cell 5. Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw suggested borrowing employees from other county divisions, such as roads, to hurry the process, a strategy that Tustin admitted could have Cell 1 ready in as little as three years. Still, Tustin described abandoning Cell 5 and focusing entirely on Cell 1 as “a gamble” and suggested at least keeping permitting up-to-date for Cell 5, to use as a back-up plan.

“I think it’s important to go the dual path of getting Cell 5 permitted and designed,” he said.

“I don’t think we can abandon Cell 5,” agreed Commission President Bud Church.

With a bond seeming less imminent, the commission still had to find a way to reduce the department’s $750,000 yearly loss. Completely abandoning recycling is not an option: Maryland mandates that a county recycle at least 15 percent of its waste, not to mention the fact that Worcester has always shone a spotlight on its environmental conservation efforts, which doesn’t leave room to nix recycling.

Hoping to find other solutions, Savage compared Worcester’s policies to some other counties in Maryland.

“About half of them do a pay-as-you-throw program,” she pointed out.

That system involves charging people who use the landfill for every load or every trip they make. The idea received a lukewarm response from the commission, with only two of the seven interested in further researching it.

A more popular suggestion was to implement a fee similar to the flush tax, where everyone in the county would pay a small tax, likely $15-$25 per year to contribute towards recycling.

Gulyas, who represents the Ocean City district, pointed out that it would be unfair to tax residents of the city for recycling, since Ocean City no longer participates in the program.

Commissioner Madison Bunting felt that a tax fee was the correct route.

“I think we need to look at some kind of fee on the tax bill,” he said.

Church, Lockfaw, and Gulyas leaned more toward an alternative to a tax fee, such as increasing the cost to use a tipping station.

Another option Savage mentioned including closing down the Snow Hill tipping station, since it is only five miles from the Central landfill in Newark. There wasn’t a consensus generated by the commission on any issue, expect for a unanimous desire to avoid bonding Cell 5.