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Election 2011 – Solid waste: parcel fee or self haul?
A Nov. 8 ballot measure will determine whether San Juan County property owners will pay a parcel fee to fund solid waste operations for the next 15 years.
“No matter what happens, it’s going to be a fundamentally different system next year,” said council member Jamie Stephens.
If it passes, solid waste service will remain at current levels. But if voters boo the measure out of the ballot box, county council members say their only recourse is to cease county operations of county transfer stations.
Is it legal?
Whether the parcel fee is legal has been a matter of some debate.
“There is some risk in being the first county [in the state] to adopt a parcel fee for solid waste services,” said county prosecutor Randy Gaylord. It’s possible the state supreme court will rule the fee an “unlawful tax” and require the county to refund up to three years of receipts.
Due to Gaylord’s interpretation of legal precedent, the measure has been crafted as a fee-for-use based on estimated use for each type of development.
“We believe this connection between land use and waste generated will carry the day and serves to distinguish the parcel fee from a flat rate charge to all parcels, which would be a tax,” he said.
Plan A explained
The parcel fee, dubbed “Plan A,” would fund the maintenance of current solid waste service levels and lower tipping fees for trash and recycle, paying for needed capital improvements and for the county solid waste department’s nearly $1.5 million debt.
According to county administrator Pete Rose, much of the debt was incurred during the county’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to develop its own solid waste facility on San Juan Island, which involved spending $500,000 on environmental impact statements on five potential transfer station locations between 2006-2008, and $116,900 for environmental testing. Another $167,400 was incurred for design of industrial stormwater compliance measures for both Orcas and San Juan Island sites.
“Under Plan A, self-haul is assured,” said council member and solid waste sub-committee head Patty Miller – but for most homeowners, Plan A would also be more expensive.
The fee for a single family residence, vacation rental or unit in a multi-household building is $100; it’s $150 for homes or bed and breakfasts with an ADU, and $75 for condos. For non-residential properties, the fee is $10 or $20 per 100 square feet, and there is no fee for undeveloped properties or utilities.
Per-ton tipping fees will equalize to $175 per ton, down from $225 per ton for San Juan Sanitation and $335 for self-haulers. Today, self-haulers pay $9.50 per can; it’s not stated how much this would decrease under Plan A.
Current San Juan Sanitation pickup rates range from $7.77 per can for weekly pickup, to $8.45 per can for monthly pickup. Manager Calvin Den Hartog said if the fee passes, rates could drop 10 percent.
To complicate matters, the county’s long-haul contract expires in 2013, and the renegotiated rates for removal of the county’s waste from transfer stations are likely to rise.
Plan B explained
If the measure fails, under the council’s backup “Plan B” the county would no longer operate county transfer stations.
“It isn’t mandatory curbside pickup, but predominantly curbside,” said Miller. “Self-haul service may or may not still be available,” depending on whether the private sector decides it would be profitable.
The county’s designated commercial solid waste hauler, San Juan Sanitation, would continue to offer curbside pickup regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. The company has said it can directly serve 93 percent of the county’s residences, but the rest may need to place their cans at the end of certain roads instead of at their homes.
Den Hartog said it’s likely curbside pickup costs would go down at least 15 percent due to economies of scale provided by higher volume.
The transfer stations would be made available to private entities to run for profit on a free market basis, with rates not regulated by the WUTC. Miller said operation by a private company could involve reduced services and infrastructure: for example, packer trucks parked at the transfer stations that accept waste only on a per-can basis, and no tipping floor or scales. But such self-haul is expected to cost 10 to 15 percent more than curbside pickup.
Plan B could jeopardize the existence of both the Orcas Island Exchange and the Lopez Take-it-or-Leave-it, which are located at transfer stations and rely on self-haul traffic to provide takers and leavers.
Stephens said under Plan B it would become legal for county residents to haul their waste outside the county. The county would continue to charge a 10 percent excise tax on solid waste transactions, and would use that money to pay off its debt.
Recycling rates would be roughly 70 percent of garbage costs, and could be even lower if the county passed an ordinance requiring curbside recycling pickup for homes using curbside trash pickup.
Voices by island
Each main island currently housing a transfer station has a different stake in the measure.
If the fee passes, the portion of the parcel tax proceeds designated for Lopez Island solid waste operations could be given to the Port of Lopez, now in negotiations with the county council.
Port of Lopez commissioner Dan Post has indicated that the port wishes to run operations regardless of whether the parcel fee succeeds.
“If the initiative fails then with Plan B the Port of Lopez would be more creative with the financing of the dump with user fees, memberships, efficiencies, donations, recycle sales, etc.,” he said.
As a junior taxing district, the port has the authority to put a property tax on the ballot to fund Lopez solid waste. Post said he has consistently voted against taxes, and supports finding efficiencies instead.
The Town of Friday Harbor has already abandoned taking its trash to county transfer stations in favor of Skagit County’s cheaper tipping fees. Although the parcel fee would not be charged on properties within the Town of Friday Harbor, all county voters can vote on the measure. Town residents could benefit from the resulting lower tipping fees if the measure passes.
“[Lower] rates under Plan A would encourage Friday Harbor to re-enter the system, provided that a tipping floor is put back in place on San Juan; that’s under assessment,” said Miller. Town of Friday Harbor administrator King Fitch agreed, provided “the price is right.”
Miller said tipping fees charged to the town would reflect actual waste disposal costs, but the costs of infrastructure and legacy debt would be paid by the rest of county property owners through the parcel fee. She said the town’s added volume could improve overall county solid waste finances.
The town still takes its recycling to the county-run Friday Harbor transfer station; under Plan B it could pay more to haul its recycling off island. Fitch said the town, already the landowner, could also choose to rebuild and operate the San Juan facility for its own use.
At community meetings, many Orcas residents have said they highly value self-haul and waste reduction.
“In the 28 years of the Exchange, the council has never acknowledged it as part of the waste management plan,” said George Post, asking for concrete evidence that the county is committed to waste reduction.
— Editor's note: the full ordinance 16-2011 is available online here.