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Beware 'easy' answers

January 20, 1997

Despite the gloom-and-doom predictions the Washington County Commissioners heard this past Tuesday, they'd be wise not to make any hasty moves on the county's landfill, especially, as is almost inevitable, someone suggests selling it to private industry.

The problem the commissioners face is that haulers will bring only 56,000 tons of solid waste to the landfill this year, as opposed to the 77,000 predicted. Because a drop in tonnage doesn't mean a drop in fixed costs, the commissioners face a possible deficit by 2001, a deficit that could grow to $1 million by 2003.

But those projections assume that current conditions will not change, that haulers now taking trash to landfills in Upton, Pa. and other locations will continue to do so and that the county will take no action to head off its financial problems.

The most obvious possibility: Cut the solid waste charge of $45 a ton, which is apparently what chased the haulers and their business into Pennsylvania. Another idea: Divide the county into garbage sub-districts, let a contract for municipal waste hauling in each area and force haulers who win contracts to use the county's landfill.

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But there's something else to think about here. If reduced tonnage prolongs the life of the current landfill, isn't it possible that paying for the operating deficit would be cheaper than building a new landfill now?

At some point in the future, the cheaper landfills are going to fill up and siting replacements for them will be a controversial and expensive process. At that point, the county's own landfill may be the only alternative, even at $45 a ton.

The proposal to sell the landfill hasn't been made yet, but it certainly will be, after someone adds up the cost of landfill workers' pay and the operating costs and begins to dream about the savings to the county's general fund. We have no doubt that private industry could run the landfill at a profit, but remember whose wallets and pocketbooks that profit would come from. We urge the commissioners to beware so-called "simple" solutions to complicated problems.

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