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Thursday, February 11,2010

County weighs pros, cons of leaving waste district

By David DeWitt

The Athens County Commissioners held a work session Tuesday to consider the costs and benefits of possibly pulling out of the Athens-Hocking Solid Waste District, which is in a new round of contract negotiations this year.

Commissioners Larry Payne and Lenny Eliason discussed the matter, though Commissioner Mark Sullivan was absent from the meeting. State law requires re-negotiation of the solid-waste contract every five years, a process currently underway. During this window of negotiation, any county in the joint district has the option of pulling out of the agreement. After a plan is implemented, the only way to withdraw is with the permission of the other partner(s) in the district.

The cost of updating the plan comes in around $40,000. Payne previously explained that the district is supposed to be self-funding, with monies raised from garbage fees, recycling charges and tipping fees (from the landfill). He noted that the tipping fees haven't been increased in 16 years, since the joint plan was implemented, and are now outdated.

Another funding dilemma for the district is that the commodities market for recycling bottomed out last year. Some items no longer can be sold for recycling, Payne said, plus he questioned whether much money could be made in recycling. Until this recycling market turns around, the district has some serious financial issues, Payne said.

One reason for this is that the district has seen some large worker compensation claims in recent years, including a $300,000 worker compensation bill this past year. With Athens County acting as the fiscal agent of the district, this puts a financial strain on the county budget.

At the work session Payne and Eliason seemed to pull away from the idea of increasing fees for recycling.

"I think in Athens County people would be up for it to a certain extent, but not enough to cover the costs that we need," Payne said. He added that it doesn't seem appropriate to make people pay more to do the right thing.

If the county were to pull out of the joint district, Payne said, the big difference is that the policy committee would be made up only of Athens County people.

"If we're doing Athens County, then we would hopefully have a plan that would be more reflective of Athens County, and should be something that I think a policy committee made up of Athens County people would be able to develop," Payne said.

Eliason agreed with Payne, but noted that Athens would have to bear the entire $40,000 cost of coming up with a plan.

"Our mandate is to reduce solid-waste disposal," Eliason said. "The operation, I don't think, is financially feasible to continue as it is... But realistically, a decision has to be made to commit probably $50,000 to convert to a single-county district."

He said the county could incur unemployment costs if employees are laid off due to the separation, and the county would probably not see any savings for at least a year or two.

The commissioners have mentioned possibly raising fees at the Athens-Hocking Reclamation Center landfill near Nelsonville. They have also discussed adding a generation fee. If one were implemented, the fee would be placed on all garbage dumped in the district without regard to where it's dumped.

Most private haulers oppose these options, arguing that they would have to increase their rates to customers if such fees were levied.

Eliason said the real wildcard in the situation is the cost of the different options. A consultant was hired to help in the updating process, and the commissioners agreed to wait to hear the consultant's advice with regard to possible fee increases, as well as other issues facing the district.

The consultant will attend the next Athens-Hocking Solid Waste Dstrict meeting, slated for 8:30 a.m. Monday, March 1 at the Inn at Hocking College.

Eliason said that he doesn't expect a full decision to be reached on the matter until May or June.

Hocking County Commissioner Greg Green said that he does not support splitting up the district. He also said that he doesn't support the solid-waste district raising fees to make it more cost-effective to compete against private haulers.

"I think we need to go back and look at the objective of what the solid-waste district is meant to do," he said. "We're to be in the recycling business. The private haulers are in the trash business... To raise fees to compete against them? " No, I can't do that."

He said that both counties need to brainstorm together about how to decrease solid waste, promote recycling and still be profitable.

"Splitting up the district " that's not the answer," Green said. "That's not going to solve the problem."


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