Trash conundrum revealed

Friday, January 8, 2010

No good answer exists for county leaders awaiting finalization of a state decision on whether Cedar Ridge Landfill should be expanded, officials' discussion revealed early this week.

Water pollution would continue if the landfill is allowed to expand, according to comments heard during the public discussion. If the landfill can't expand and must close, costs increase for trash disposal.

Billing issues will lead to lawsuits for collection of fees to fund a short-term plan so trash removal continues if the landfill must close, County Attorney Ginger Shofner told commissioners on the Budget and Solid Waste committees that met in joint session Monday.

Fine tuning continues on a resolution to impose a solid waste fee that would total $160 annually for county residents without garbage collection provided by a municipality.

"There's not any good fee or tax," Solid Waste Director Morgan Thomas said of the funding conundrum. "It's just the lesser of the two evils."

Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the Budget Committee, said "I wouldn't start any collecting until we get the 90-day notice" from Waste Management announcing that the landfill will close. Furthermore, if the fee starts and the landfill can stay open, then refunds must be paid.

King's observations emerged from discussion acknowledging a time-line that started Dec. 16 when the Department of Environment and Conservation told Waste Management that TDEC's commissioner intends to deny the company's application for Cedar Ridge. If a 90-day notice is ever issued, it would be, at the very least, several months from now.

"We are going to exercise all options available to Waste Management at this time, so that Cedar Ridge can continue providing valuable services to the community," landfill spokeswoman Terri Douglas said.

That's to get a permit for Cell No. 7, the 11-acre part of Cedar Ridge Landfill where Waste Management proposes to cap a sinkhole and bury trash.

After a public comment period ends Feb. 8, TDEC Commissioner Jim Fyke is to consider any new information and then issue a decision. He only reached a tentative conclusion on Dec. 16, pending additional information that's relevant to the issues.

County commissioners' discussion on Monday shows Fyke might have until early March to issue a final decision.

The state's environment and conservation commissioner is not required to issue a final decision with his signature within 30 days, "but it will be done within a reasonable amount of time," TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said.

Within two months thereafter, commissioners discussion shows, the state's Solid Waste Disposal Control Board could receive Waste Management's appeal and schedule a hearing. Therefore, if the Board hears the request quickly it might be mid-May or sometime in June when that Board decides.

If it rules against Waste Management, the company could turn to the civil court system.

The county contract with Waste Management requires a 90-day notice before it can terminate services associated with the landfill's existence. It's based on host fees paid to the county since the facility is here.

Those factors in a time-line leading to when a one-year, short-term plan must start were considered by county commissioners during the joint meeting of elected officials whose current terms of office end in conjunction with the county's Aug. 5 general election.

"We're just trying to get something in place if they (Waste Management executives) send us that letter" announcing the 90-day notice, King said.

That "something" is the resolution with the $160 solid waste fee for residents not served by a municipality, but the verbiage in the document is still being "tweaked," Shofner said.

The county attorney and Thomas, the solid waste director, have consulted different authorities on how to fund solid waste programs.

One of them is Mike Stooksbury of the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) who, Shofner reported, "says collection is a big headache."

"'Be prepared for court,'" she said of his advice that the county must be prepared to sue scofflaws who refuse to pay the fee even though litigation would cost more than the recovery. "The commission needs to know that. Otherwise the people will say, 'Why pay? What are they going to do: Sue me for $40?'"

CTAS recommends billing the $160 annual fee either monthly or quarterly, Shofner said. However, Thomas has indicated that a separate billing system would only increase operational costs.

One county with a solid waste fee has it included with the electric co-op's monthly bill, but Thomas reports that's not an option with Duck River Electric Membership Corp.

Billing issues were cited as one reason the solid waste fee resolution was withdrawn from a county commission agenda late last year. The Solid Waste Committee led by Commissioner Don Ledford refrained from voting to recommend the resolution to the Jan. 25 meeting of the Commission.

One reason appears to be that it's not needed yet. Another was to give commissioners more time to fine tune the document.

The Solid Waste Committee meets again on Jan. 14 at 6 p.m.