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San Juan County Council adopts $5 fee for recycling; takes effect Oct. 1

The San Juan County Council approved on Aug. 31 a $5 gate fee for recycling at the islands
The San Juan County Council approved on Aug. 31 a $5 gate fee for recycling at the islands' solid waste transfer stations and drop boxes. However, if you take your recycling to the waste transfer station when you take your trash, you don't have to pay the $5 recycling fee. The fee is designed to help stabilize the Solid Waste Division's finances.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen / Journal file photos

The days of free recycling are numbered, unless you've got a knack for consolidation.

On Tuesday, the San Juan County Council approved a fee for disposing of recycled materials at the county's solid-waste facilities. The $5 fee is $2 more than that proposed by the Department of Public Works, which operates the solid waste utility.

The $5 fee, which also applies to discarded car batteries, is slated to take effect Oct. 1. However, you will not have to pay the recycling fee if you drop off your recyclables when you take your garbage to the transfer station or drop box.

The fee is described by county officials as a "stop-gap" measure needed to keep the cash-starved solid waste operation from falling further into the red. The solid waste division pays roughly $300,000 a year to discard of recycled materials under its current contract with Waste Management of Washington.

According to Public Works Utilities Manager Ed Hale, the $3 fee was expected to raise an additional $240,000 in revenue over the next 15 months.

The fee is designed to generate income from the 80,000 or so visits that are made to the facilities each year to dispose of recycling free of charge, and to help bring the solid waste operation's finances back into balance by the end of 2011.

Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, casting the lone dissenting vote in Tuesday's 5-1 decision. Myhr argued for an across-the-board increase in tipping fees, the price one pays for disposing of garbage.

Public Works Director Jon Shannon countered that another increase in tipping fees may backfire. Shannon said the cost of disposing of garbage is already at the "fee threshold" and that raising prices would likely drive even more customers away from the system. Roughly 94 percent of Solid Waste Division's day-to-day expenses are covered by tipping fees.

"Any increase in the rate will equal a decrease in the volume," he said.

In theory, a $5 fee would raise nearly twice as much as a $3 fee. However, Hale said the amount of revenue anticipated from a recycling fee is based on the assumption that the number of people bringing recycling to the county's three solid waste facilities will remain largely unchanged. It also doesn't account for the decision by the Town of Friday Harbor, which had contributed about $330,000 into the system each year, to take its garbage to Skagit County for disposal.

Despite recent cuts in personnel and hours of operation, the Solid Waste Division's operating budget is nearly $300,000 in red as of the end of the August, while the shortfall in the Solid Waste Capital Fund totals roughly $900,000, according to Auditor Milene Henley.

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