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Washington County Commissioners grappling with recycling costs

Currently, county pays contractor to empty drop-off bins and receives no revenue from recycling

March 21, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com

Some landfill users are not happy about Washington County’s plan to begin charging even permit-holders an extra $36 a year to drop off recyclables at the landfill and other staffed drop sites, but they may like the alternative even less.

If the Washington County Board of Commissioners decides not to introduce that recycling sticker fee — or not to require it for landfill permit-holders — it will have to find another way to raise more than $200,000 a year to empty the recycling bins, probably by increasing other landfill fees, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said this week.

The commissioners discussed the issue Tuesday but made no decision, deciding to take it up again at a future meeting.

Since announcing in January that the county will promote a private curbside-recycling program, eliminate unstaffed recycling bins and begin charging to recycle at the landfill and transfer stations, county officials have heard from many residents who say the changes are “counter to the whole recycling effort,” Murray said.

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And that could be true, he said.

“Any time people perceive they’re not paying for something — even though they really are — and then you assess a fee to it, yes, it could change how much it’s used,” Murray said.

“At the same time, (the proposed sticker fee) was going to pay the pull cost (for the recycling bins), and if we’re not going to do that, we have to look at the budget and determine another way to cover that exposure.”

The proposed changes are part of the county’s plan to make the program cover its own costs, Murray said.

For years, the county has provided recycling drop-off bins throughout the county at no charge to users.

But those boxes are not free, Murray said.

The county pays a contractor to empty the bins and receives no revenue from the eventual recycling of the cardboard, cans and other materials.

The money to empty the recycling bins currently comes from the fees users pay to bring trash to the landfill, Murray said.

“The only people that pay for the recycling, even though everyone uses it, are the ones that are buying landfill stickers and that kind of thing,” he said. “So not everyone pays, which is why everyone thinks it’s free, but it’s not.”

But with landfill use declining, the county can no longer afford to use landfill permit- and tipping-fee revenue to subsidize recycling, he said.

Losing money

The county’s solid waste fund, considered an “enterprise,” or self-supporting fund, is losing money every year, Murray said.

That’s a point the commissioners say the county needs to emphasize more.

“I got into a very heated, heated discussion ... with an individual that just could not understand why she would have to pay for recycling when, A, it’s the right thing to do, and B, she’s never had to pay for that kind of stuff before,” Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said.

“However you have tried in the past to articulate it ... it’s never been put in bold, bold letters across the headlines: ‘County loses money every day,’” Callaham said. “If people saw that, wouldn’t they just come and just stomp on us and say, ‘You’re losing money every day. Stop it'?’”

“They don’t understand why (recycling) costs,” Commissioner William B. McKinley said. “In fact, they believe it’s a revenue source, not a cost, so we need to do a better job explaining to the public why it’s a cost and not a revenue source.”

Eliminating the unstaffed recycling drop boxes, combined with increased use of private curbside recycling, is expected to reduce the “pull cost” to empty the boxes to about $200,000 a year, down from more than $400,000, Murray said.

But it is important that the county continue to offer recycling drop boxes at the landfill and transfer stations because some of the less-populated areas of the county still do not have the option of curbside recycling, he said.

Other recycling programs — including those for used oil, antifreeze and Styrofoam, and the cardboard processed by The Arc of Washington County — would still be available for no charge, solid-waste Director Clifford J. Engle said.

The recycling fee issue must be decided before the county approves its budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1.

“We can come back and discuss that probably after next week’s meeting,” Murray said.

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