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Council to consider privatizing solid waste transfer system

Could turning over the handling of garbage and recycling to a private company, and its transfer stations as well, be the answer to San Juan County's two-year tumble into the red?

That's what the San Juan County Council intends to find out, according to county Communication Manager Stan Matthews.

With a proposal from Orcas Island-based San Juan Sanitation in hand, the County Council on Monday agreed to continue its exploration of the pros and cons of privatization and whether getting out of the solid-waste business all together will be -- in the end -- both a financial blessing for the county and good public policy.

In a unanimous decision, the council directed county staff to prepare a "Request for Proposal" to privatize the portion of county’s solid waste operation that accepts trash from self-haulers and commercial operators. The tasks of providing curbside pick-up service and hauling solid waste to the mainland are already contracted out, Matthews noted in a press release.

The county operates facilities on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Islands where self-haulers can dump garbage and recycling, but Public Works Director Jon Shannon has told the Council that, without a significant infusion of money, the Solid Waste division will be forced to close its facilities on San Juan and Lopez islands. Most residents would then have their garbage and recycling picked up at curbside.

Five of the six members of the council have indicated a commitment, however, to keeping self-haul service on the three islands.

In order to keep the three facilities operating, the council adopted a 2010 budget that included $1.6 million in capital expenditures and operating costs for the solid waste utility that was to be paid for by revenue sources which were not identified at that time. The council has not yet identified those sources and the utility is predicting that it will end the year nearly $1 million in debt, Matthews added.

As part of Monday’s workshop, the council reviewed a preliminary proposal from the county’s franchised trash hauler, San Juan Sanitation. The company has expressed interest in taking over the trash transfer operation, if the county opts to contract out.

According to Matthews, San Juan Sanitation’s Dan Leidecker made it clear Monday that the company is not enamored of self-haul. He blamed the county’s cost of maintaining the transfer facilities for forcing garbage fees so high that some of its previous customers are now hauling their own trash to the mainland.

“To continue the inefficiency of self-haul, we keep raising up San Juan Sanitation’s [rates] and now we know why the town of Friday Harbor left the system,” he said.

Ultimately, Leidecker said, San Juan Sanitation would like to eliminate all transfer facilities on the islands and haul all trash and recycling directly to the mainland.

Councilwoman Lovel Pratt expressed concern about accommodating customers who want to carry trash to a facility themselves.

“What we’ve heard from our constituents is that they do not want to go to a mandatory curbside model," Pratt said, ". . .when we put out an RFP we may want to say that we want to ensure that certain services are provided.”

Leidecker responded, “If you really feel like the public needs to have ‘drop-off’, then it can be provided; but it doesn’t have to be subsidized by the commercial players.”

The cost of disposing of recycling and most other sold waste utility services are currently paid for by the “tipping fees” charged for accepting of garbage at the county’s facilities.

In its proposal, San Juan Sanitation would still make some provision for self-haulers, but it would increase the current differential between the fees charged for its curbside and self-haul customers. Residential customers would pay about 25 percent more to dump trash into a truck themselves than to have it picked up at curbside. Other services, such as acceptance of household hazardous waste, batteries and free disposal of noxious weeds and roadside clean-up were not included in the proposal.

Pratt and some members of the public expressed concern that privatizing trash transfer would conflict with the county’s solid waste plan’s goals to recycle, reuse and divert as much material as possible from the waste stream. Others argued that because of the financial crisis, immediate steps need to be taken, before attention can be turned toward other goals.

County Administrator Pete Rose emphasized that the proposal from San Juan Sanitation was primarily to be used by the council only as background information. County staff will draft a Request for Proposal which specifies the services prospective contractors would be required to offer.

The next step would be for the council to approve an RFP and decide whether to solicit proposals. The motion adopted by the council also asks staff to investigate whether some degree of privatization might be possible by expanding the scope of existing contracts rather than going through a full blown RFP process.

A county staff report, including San Juan Sanitation’s full proposal are available online at: http://sanjuanco.com/docs/Council/Privatization_Report_11-15-10.pdf

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