SNOW HILL – Elected officials continue to express concerns regarding the cost of the county’s recycling program and homeowner convenience centers.
Though there were no major changes approved last week, the Worcester County Commissioners once again voiced frustration over the $2 million cost of operating the recycling and homeowner convenience centers.
“Sooner or later it’s going to have to be addressed,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
As the commissioners continued budget discussions this week, staff explained that recycling center and the homeowner convenience centers had been added as line items in the public works department’s budget. Previously, they were included in the budget for the solid waste enterprise fund.
Staff said that while each had expenditures of more than $1 million, there were also revenues associated with those operations. Recycling brings in about $180,000 while the convenience centers bring in $329,000. Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said it was difficult to find ways to cut costs in recycling or the convenience centers because most of the expense was tied to employees.
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked if hours could be cut at the convenience centers, which are currently open six days a week.
Higgins said the affected personnel would have to be given other responsibilities.
“I don’t really have a plan to do that,” he said.
Bertino asked if they could help cut grass.
“Some of them are not trained to do that,” Higgins said.
He said staff had looked over and over at ways to cut costs in those operations.
“The only way I believe you’re going to cut expenditures is a long-term approach…,” Higgins said. “As people retire you don’t replace them. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the next year it’s three, four, five years down the road.”
Commissioner Bud Church said that if the convenience centers were open less, he worried there’d be more trash on local roads. Mitrecic said that was brought up every time the commissioners discussed the convenience centers. He said it didn’t change the fact that the centers cost the county significant money.
“It’s a service that at some point in time, it’s going to have to be looked at and it’s going to need to be cut whether it’s this year or next year or the year after that,” he said.
He said it wasn’t fair to the people who lived in places like Ocean Pines or Berlin and paid for municipal trash pick-up.
“This is solely pretty much for the outlying areas of the county that this service is provided for,” he said. “I just sit here and every year we pass this and continue to do this.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting agreed and said the county should do away with the convenience centers.
“It’s not an opinion that’s going to be popular with my constituents I can tell you that, but it’s just looking at it from a responsible point of view,” Bunting said. “That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not worried about the politics part of it.”
Commissioner Diana Purnell said she’d never vote to close the centers. She said there were plenty of seniors who couldn’t afford commercial trash pickup.
“That is not good for this county, period,” she said.
Mitrecic said he wouldn’t be in favor of closing them this year but thought the issue had to be addressed.
“We need to find a way to fund this or a way to offset it so the cost isn’t so high to the entire county,” he said.
Purnell brought up the idea of adjusting the permit fee for the convenience centers. The $100 permit fee hasn’t changed in five years.
“If you close those, it’s going to be hell to pay,” she said.
Church maintained that closing the centers would result in more litter.
“You close those convenience centers, you’re going to see more trash on the highways than you’ve ever seen before,” he said. “Then the cost is really going to escalate when you have to hire more road crews to go out there and clean up the county. Government doesn’t always have to pay for every issue, I understand that. Convenience centers are a necessity right now for the county.”
Bertino asked staff whether a fee increase had been considered. Jessica Wilson, Who, said that when the fee was increased to $100 the county had gone from roughly 4,000 permit holders to 3,200 permit holders.
“The problem is when we raise the rates we lose customers,” she said. “They truly should be set at $300 a permit to cover all the costs. Raise them to $300 we are hardly going to have any customers left. It’s difficult.”
Bunting said that at least officials were discussing the issue now.
“I’m just glad to see talking about closing the convenience centers got everybody’s attention,” Bunting said. “I agree with Commissioner Mitrecic, I wouldn’t’ want to do it this year. The fact is we’re going to have to do something. We’ve sat here and I’ve been on the side of saying we need to increase rates, we haven’t done that. I’m just saying we have to do something.”
He suggested cutting hours at the centers for a start. Mitrecic said that while he thought raising rates would make the county lose customers, cutting the hours of operation should be explored.
“If we decide to change the service to save the county money I believe that is our prerogative,” he said. “Therein lies the name of the convenience center. It’s a convenience for them. If we change those hours that’s our prerogative.”
Elder said if the county raised its permit fees more people might move toward using commercial haulers.
“The issue is, is it worth the amount of money we’re putting into it as a service,” he said. “That’s what it all comes down to. I just wonder if we were to raise these fees, maybe it would help start pushing people into thinking they need to get commercial people to do their trash pickup.”
Purnell stressed that many taxpayers might not be able to afford commercial service. Bunting said they’d be impacted regardless.
“If we don’t look at ways to cut things we’re going to be constantly raising taxes,” he said.