Federal and state governments have their hands full trying to avoid being eaten alive by increasing mandates for pensions and other debts, but local governments wrestle with similar debacles as well. Mono County, for instance, has recently been grappling with how to keep its rapidly submerging Solid Waste program afloat. That ship, however, may not be headed for the bottom, thanks to number crunching by the solid waste task force (SWTF) charged with plugging the leak.
Following the height of the County’s building spree in 2006, the bubble burst. Solid waste deposits into the County’s landfill from commercial and residential sectors plummeted more than 40% in just two years. Realizing the meter is running on the solid waste program, which at the moment is losing roughly $80,000 per month, Mono County’s Board of Supervisors tapped into the General Fund reserves last August and approved a $1.2 million short-term “loan” from the reserves until a “corrective plan” could be devised.
Back in 2007, with six transfer stations, a regional landfill, two smaller landfills, recycling and diversion programs, Mono Solid Waste was charging $46 per ton in tipping fees, which at the time also covered debt service on its various facilities. Currently at $50 per ton, the revenue shortfall had the County mulling a boost of more than 90% in the tonnage rate to between $96 and $100 per ton.
New figures from the task force extended the payback time to the General Fund, but will hold tipping fees somewhere south of $96 and keep the program in the black, even if just barely.
Following the Feb. 23 SWTF meeting, County Solid Waste Superintendent Matt Carter reported the group decided on two proposals to present to the Board. Each has a tipping fee increase. Option 1, however, has a reduction in days of operation at each facility, while Option 2 maintains current level of service. The alternate option in each is the A87 state charged and County-budgeted Public Works administrative costs that the group elected to present to the Board as a cost that the fund should not incur. Each option set a tipping fee relative to fund the expenses with an approximate 4% contingency, to avoid going back to the Board for another increase.
Under Option 1A, Benton would operate 1 day, Bridgeport 2 days, Benton Crossing 6 days and Chalfant 2 days, Paradise 1 day, Pumice Valley 2 days and Walker 2 days each per week. All would be closed on County-observed holidays. The tipping fee would increase to $78/ton, with a minimum gate fee of $5, but would mean $114,805 in the black at the end of the year. Option 1B includes options in 1A and a Board “contribution” to offset A87 and Public Works administrative time billed to the Solid Waste fund. The tipping fee increase would only go to $64/ton and a minimum gate fee of $5, and result in a net leftover of $104,500.
Option 2A maintains current levels of service, but in exchange, the tipping fee increases to $82/ton and a minimum gate fee of $5, and drops the left over amount to $97,174. Option 2B also seeks a Board “contribution,” but would lower the tipping fee increase to $70/ton and a minimum gate fee of $5, but yield a $129,555 overage.
Darrol Brown from Yerrington, Nev.-based D&S Waste Removal, who participated in the task force process, submitted ideas for a “third option.” Carter said the option was helpful and indicated the private sector’s willingness to be involved in finding a solution. Several questions were, however, raised by former Board of Supervisors candidate and north county contractor Tim Fesko. And Carter said the option, while well intentioned, had some problems that kept it from being part of the option package to be presented to the Board during its mid-year budget review on Thursday.
Brown’s “third option” suggested Benton Crossing crew reductions, but the state’s Environmental Health Services division said Mono already has one of the smallest staffs in the state, even for rural areas, and in short told Carter staffing “can’t go any lower.” Further proposed reductions of $118,650 in Maintenance costs (from $168,000 to just $50,000) would not reconcile with the yearly amount needed for fuel and other necessary expenses. Last year, Carter said the County spent $77,000 alone in repairs to equipment that is 10 years old, including $37,000 in dozer tracks & engine replacement costs.
Brown wanted “Professional Services” reduced to zero, but Carter said that moving environmental and other legal consultation in house isn’t realistic. He pointed out that scientific and legal specialists are not found in the Solid Waste or Public Works department and have to be contracted out of house to fulfill state mandated studies and other needs.
Lowering “A87” costs from $207,490 t0 $81,000 simply shifts the burden to the General Fund, which is counter to the Solid Waste fund’s being treated as a separate “business” line item, as opposed to classifying it under General Fund. And there are substantial fines levied by the state for poor or neglected work on items such as “Land & Improvements,” which include gas monitoring and would, Carter thinks, suffer if dropped from $75,000 to $30,000. “Transfer Out to Closure” under D&S’s option would be reduced from $67,795 to $50,000, but Carter said those numbers deal with cost projections, and again the state levies fines for not transferring enough money to accomplish a full closure.
“I agree that everyone needs to help out and do more with less,” Fesko commented. “I think that a one-day reduction in most Transfer Stations is more than acceptable. People will complain at first … trust me we used to have 7 days [in the north county], but they’ll get use to it.”
D&S’s option would have meant no loss of revenue or tipping fee increases. “In our opinion, Mono County is going to have to do what everyone else in the public and private sector has had to do in this economy: do less with more,” Brown wrote in an e-mail to Carter. “Will people have to be let go? Unfortunately, yes; however, until the economy has fully recovered and an agreement has been reached for a long-term solution to the solid waste issue, it is very unlikely that the people will approve or allow any increase.”
Carter pointed out that Inyo County is currently in a similar financial predicament keeping up with costs of running its solid waste program, which he indicated might be several hundred thousand dollars in the hole.
Last year, Solid Waste made huge cuts and didn’t pass along anything to the constituents. This year, the argument is cutting service, increasing fees or both. “We could not cut service and increase fees a lot. Seeing how other counties handle it, I’d be fine with that, but you’re not going to make all the people happy,” Carter told The Sheet. “It was really good to have process involving staff, the general public and many players, including waste haulers and environmental oversight.”
No word yet on when it might be agendized for the Board to decide which option will get the nod, but look for action on the matter sooner rather than later.