Solid waste fee still looms

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tough and unpopular decisions about the disposal of the county's trash lie ahead for the commission and its solid waste committee.

At a meeting Monday night attended by 10 of the county commissioners and about 25 residents, the solid waste committee heard from solid waste director Morgan Thomas about the cuts he has made to his department's budget balance for the upcoming year.

Areas in which Thomas has cut include overtime, water testing (by reducing the number of sampling points), legal fees, maintenance on equipment, printing and advertising, and fuel.

"That's what I can get by with," Thomas said. "Without the offer of help from Waste Management, we could not continue the services. I don't think any of my employees are expendable - I think everybody who works for me will be busy."

By accepting Waste Management's proposal to help his department, Thomas promised that he would not have to lay off anyone or reduce services. WMI has said Marshall County can retain the whole host fee if the tonnage deposited at Cedar Ridge remains at its current low amount and they will help out with picking up containers. If the opening of Cell 7 is not approved by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, WMI will give 90 days' notice, at the end of which period the help will stop. If Cedar Ridge remained open, the County would then have to revert to the original agreement and pay a tipping fee.

"I appreciate Waste Management's offer," said chairman Don Ledford. "You've got 90 days if Cell 7 is not approved, and I don't see how TDEC can approve it with three major violations since May."

"What's your plan when you get the 90-day notice and have to run solid waste without money to run it?" asked Neill.

"I'll look at my 90-day plan," Thomas said. "We'll discuss revenue sources again - the previous ones were not well-liked by the commission."

"You mean a fee or a property tax increase," Ledford said.

"Nobody wants to do it, but the money has to be there," Neill said. "Some commission at some point is going to have to do this (introduce a solid waste fee)."

"We can't exist without some kind of fee," said committee member Larry McKnight. "Information needs to go out to the public right now. We can't wait until something happens: we must make a plan now."

"I think you're right," agreed Thomas. "I do have estimates - it's $43,000 per month to run the convenience centers and transport that waste."

"What options do we have?" asked McKnight.

"Impose a fee, raise taxes, or charge a fee at the convenience centers," Thomas answered. "Other counties have either a fixed number of pennies of property tax or a fee; people seem to feel a fee is more fair. If you 'pay as you throw,' that might encourage illegal dumping," he continued.

"Can we bring it (the fee) back up?" McKnight asked. Budget director Freda Terry provided the answer after a little research: the commissioners who voted against the fee would have to make a motion to reconsider it.

"We made a serious mistake voting down the fee," said Ledford. "We must have revenue to fund the solid waste program; we have to have a program by state law."

"I'd like to see the people who were against it to bring us some other ideas," McKnight added.

Commission chairwoman Mary Ann Neill warned the committee to "be cautious" in using a revenue figure from the proposed tire disposal fee in the budget. "It may not be legal," Neill said. County attorney Ginger Shofner is looking in to it.

"Are we dipping into our fund balance?" asked Neill.

"Yes," Thomas answered.

She pointed out that if they don't get the tire fee, the fund balance will be down to about $1,000.

"It's lean and mean," McKnight said. "We're looking at you, Morgan, to keep within the budget."

The committee approved Thomas' budget as presented, by a vote of 4-1.

The solid waste committee will meet again at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 and discuss in more detail Waste Management's offer of help, contained in an addendum to their agreement with the county.

There will be a solid waste workshop after the regular County commission meeting on Monday, Aug. 24.

"The workshop is open for anyone to attend," McKnight said. "We need to know where we stand - we've got so much dissention within the commission."