Opinion

Adopt SWAC’s solid waste funding plan | Editorial

Prosecuting Attorney Randall K. Gaylord determined earlier this year that a parcel fee to support solid waste services, as recommended by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, would be legally indefensible, because it is not directly tied to solid waste transfer station use.

Now he’s changed his mind. And we urge the County Council to adopt the fee to provide a reliable revenue stream for capital improvements and other system investments. In fact, the council should adopt the plan approved by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee in August 2009.

A parcel fee would actually result in a drop in tipping fees, the amount you pay to take your trash to the transfer station. Here’s why.

Currently, the transfer stations are funded by tipping fees, which provide revenue that fluctuates based on use. Trying to balance the expenses of the solid waste utility on tipping fees alone has long been a problem. When trash volumes decrease, revenues decrease and the utility can’t meet its expenses, let alone invest in improvements for the future. The only solution is to raise tipping fees even more.

A parcel fee is fair. Good solid waste management services are essential to the general public health and to a clean environment. That’s something that all islanders share in, whether we rent or own, whether we own property that is developed or undeveloped.

The solid waste transfer stations on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands generate a total of 66,000 visits per year. Providing those solid waste services has a cost. So does ensuring a safe working environment and adapting to changes in environmental standards.

That’s why we endorse the plan recommended by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee in August 2009.

The plan would:

— Establish an annual parcel fee of $50 per developed lot and $25 per undeveloped lot.

— Establish a $5 fee each time islanders take garbage to the transfer station. (The council instead adopted a $5 recycling fee, which doesn’t apply if people take their recycling to the transfer station when they take their garbage).

— Self-haul tipping fees — what individual islanders pay to dump their garbage at the transfer station — would drop from $294 per ton, or 14.7 cents a pound, to $195.98 a ton.

— Revenue from the parcel fees and per-visit fees would go into a capital fund.

— Tipping fees would be used to fund operations; $20 of that $195.98 per ton would be used for reduce/reuse/recycle programs.

Under this plan, Solid Waste Manager Ed Hale projects a solid waste utility fund reserve of $700,000 over the next seven years.

Note that under the advisory committee’s plan, tipping fees decline. The idea behind reducing tipping fees in place of an established fee is to shift revenue for capital costs from tipping fees — which fluctuate and are unpredictable — to a steady source.

Committee member Calvin Den Hartog of San Juan Sanitation said the solid waste utility should be treated like other utilities; electrical, phone and water utilities charge a base rate and a rate based on use. The base rate pays the costs of making the service available; the use rate pays the cost of the customer’s actual use.

At the time this plan was finalized for recommendation to the County Council, committee members discussed at length the fairness of the parcel fee; for example, whether owners of undeveloped land, such as farmland, should pay a fee when their land generates little or no refuse that is taken to the solid waste transfer station.

Committee member Peter Risser said farmland does generate waste, that some undeveloped land is being held for future development, and that the value of all properties — developed and undeveloped — are enhanced by having a reliable solid waste transfer service.

Committee member Howard Rosenfeld, who’s also a San Juan County Council member, said at the time that while some property owners reside on the island part time, the solid waste transfer station has to be sized for when everybody’s on the island.

And Steve Alexander, manager of Public Works’ Solid Waste Division, said tipping fees would have to be raised from $294 to $390 a ton to meet the division’s capital needs — which include construction of a waste transfer station on San Juan Island — if a parcel fee and gate fee are not adopted.

In light of Solid Waste’s continuing financial woes and cutbacks in service, those are good enough reasons for us. Have some courage, council. Trust SWAC’s work. Knuckle down and adopt SWAC’s 2009 plan.

— What do you think about SWAC’s funding stabilization plan? Write Journal, 640 Mullis St, West Wing, or rwalker@sanjuanjournal.com

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