Opinion

Adopt SWAC’s solid waste funding plan | Editorial

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.

The San Juan County Council should keep that in mind as it tries to fix the Public Works Department Solid Waste Division’s funding woes. The council has been walking a tightrope in trying to find a solution that is politically palatable.

We endorse the plan recommended by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee in August. The plan, unanimously endorsed by the committee, is designed to provide a reliable revenue stream for capital improvements and other system investments. Currently, the solid waste 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.

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

— Establish a $5 fee each time they deposit refuse at the solid waste transfer station.

— Self-haul tipping fees — what individual islanders pay to dump their garbage at the waste transfer station — would drop from $294 per ton, or 14.7 cents a pound, to $195.98 a ton. The $5 fee would not apply to those dropping off recyclables.

— 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, the 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.

That’s why we disagree with Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord’s judgment that a parcel fee is not defensible because it is not directly tied to solid waste transfer station 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 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 the Solid Waste Division of Public Works, 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 new waste transfer station on San Juan Island — if a parcel fee and gate fee are not adopted.

Those are good enough reasons for us. The council should knuckle down and adopt the plan.

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