Doubts raised over proposed 'user-charge', solid waste bail-out

The San Juan County Council was expected Tuesday to put the finishing touch on a ballot measure that would bail-out its solid waste operation and eventually lower tipping fees by shifting much of the cost of the operation onto property owners.

On the eve of Tuesday’s public hearing, however, even some council members seemed reluctant to give that ballot measure a vote of confidence.

Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, said the ballot measure and its reliance on a variable “user charge” would prove difficult to implement and its details too complex for the average voter to grasp.

“I’m guess I’d say I’m opposed to this thing,” Rosenfeld said. “But I’m not going to stand in the way.”

As a financing tool, the solid waste user-charge would generate revenue by applying a base rate of $100 on every single-family residence in the unincorporated areas of the county. It would not apply within the boundaries of the Town of Friday Harbor.

The base rate of $100 would also serve as a “multiplier” for other types of properties, such as hotels and motels, which would be charged twice the base rate, or retail establishments or restaurants of up to 2,000 square feet, which would be charged at four times the base rate per year.

The owner of a condominium would be charged three-quarters of the base rate, while a single-family residence with a guest house would be charged one-and-a-half times the base rate.

Billed as a solution for bailing out the county's cash-strapped and debt-plagued solid waste operation, the user-charge system is intended for the November election ballot and voters will determined its fate.

On Monday, the council met with members of the county Solid Waste Advisory Committee to hammer out a “Plan B”, should the solid-waste user-charge fail at the ballot box in November.

“I think that’s where we’re going to be,” Rosenfeld said. “I think the reality is that tipping are still too high.”

He said tipping fees wouldn’t be lowered until after the user-charge were in effect for at least a year, and that the amount they would be whittled down remains uncertain.

Since such a solid-waste  user-charge would be the first of its kind in Washington state, council Chairwoman Lovel Pratt fears it could, if approved by voters, end up in court. She said, however, that she supports giving voters a choice to decide if they’re willing to pay more to keep service at the level “that we’ve heard people want.

The user charge is expected to generate enough revenue — about $7 million over six years — to maintain all three transfer stations and to pay for state-required improvements.

Still, Pratt worries at the prospect of having to pay back whatever revenue the charge generates if it were struck down by a legal challenge.

“I wish that we had gone with a more traditional revenue approach,” she said. “We’re basically being the guinea pigs here.”


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