County Council poised to raise garbage rates by 14 percent

The cost to dispose of garbage is about to climb.

On Tuesday, the San Juan County Council opted to move forward with an 14 percent rate hike on all categories of disposal fees and to boost the minimum charge, which almost exclusively applies to a single can of garbage or loads of 100 pounds or less, from $8 to $12.

In a 4-1 decision, the County Council agreed it would weigh in on the rate increase proposal at a April 6 public hearing. If approved, that 14 percent across-the-board rate hike, which applies to a dozen different disposal fees, would take effect July 1. The $4 minimum-fee increase is slated to go into effect in mid-April.

Though the county's Solid Waste Division may be in dire financial straits, not everyone on the council was ready to embrace an across-the-board rate hike. Councilwoman Lovel Pratt of South San Juan, who cast the lone dissenting vote, noted the proposed increase hits hardest those who take their own garbage to the waste transfer stations. She said the council should have a better understanding of why those who self-haul must pay $110 more per ton than the county franchise hauler, San Juan Sanitation, or the Town of Friday Harbor, before it widens that gap.

"Is expanding that rate differential really what we want?," she asked.

The increase in rates, according to Public Works Director Jon Shannon, would serve as a "stop gap" measure and hopefully generate enough revenue to keep the county solid-waste operation financially afloat through the remainder of the year. Rates could be reduced, he said, should the council decide to pursue a property tax increase that benefits the operation and if such a source of funding were approved by voters.

Shannon said several weeks ago that without a boost in revenue, the solid waste operation could face a shortfall of roughly $300,000 by the end of the year. Service levels and hours of operation have already been cut at the transfer stations on Lopez, San Juan and Orcas islands to offset a 20-percent drop in the amount of garbage collected countywide — roughly 4 million pounds — over the past two years.

Meanwhile, the county must raise enough revenue to pay for a list of state-required improvements at the Orcas and San Juan solid waste facilities and tackle a deficit of roughly $700,000 in the solid waste capital fund. Proceeds from a $2.2 million bond sale and an infusion of $220,000 from county Equipment Rental and Revolving Fund, which will take over the debt incurred by Solid Waste in the purchase of the Beaverton Valley Road property, are expected to help cover those costs.

Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, said a 14 percent rate hike "makes sense" given that Solid Waste is in a financial "pinch" and options for raising revenue are few. Peterson agreed, however, that questions about the rate differential must be dealt with so that "the public isn't skeptical about where the money goes."

Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, expects little support among voters for a property tax increase to bail out the county solid waste operation. He said members of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee have little hope of such a measure passing as well. Raising rates appears the only remedy that the council can bank on and act on quickly, he said.

"We need to get something in place," he said.

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