Should the Band-Aid be ripped off quickly or picked at slowly? That’s the question Mono County residents should be asking themselves as the Board of Supervisors continues to increase solid waste fees. Is it better to implement one really large increase and get it over with, or raise fees in small increments year after year?
It’s been less than two years since the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted to increase solid waste fees in the County in an effort to get the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund (SWEF) back in the black. On Tuesday, the Board chose to raise those fees once again; the third time in the last four years.
In April 2011, after extensive review, the Board chose to raise MSW fees (also referred to as tipping fees) from $50 to $68.50 per ton. At the time, the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund was losing approximately $3,000 daily. The causes for the program’s erosion were revenue shortfalls and unsustainable operational costs.
At the time, The Sheet reported that the Board just wanted to stop the bleeding and make the program break even. It did not want to add additional fees to bank money for the future. It held steady at the increase to $68.50 and rejected staff’s suggestion of tacking on an additional $9.25/ton to bank, which would have put the increase in 2011 at $77.75/ton rather than $68.50.
The Sheet also reported that then-Mono County Solid Waste Superintendent Matt Carter had indicated that any increase in fees should be enough to continue funding operations for at least the next 3 years.
On Tuesday, however, the Board agreed to bump the $68.50 up to $74, to avoid an anticipated budget shortfall in the SWEF.
Current Mono County Solid Waste Superintendent Tony Dublino presented the Board with six options and recommended either B1 or B2 contingent on whether or not the Board was willing to forgive loans that it had given to the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund from the General Fund over the years. The total loan forgiveness would be $1.95 million, according to Dublino.
The original B1 would have allowed a targeted fee increase and transportation surcharge with expense reduction, i.e. forgiveness of the loans. B2 suggested a higher fee increase (bumping tipping fees up to $79/ton) and transportation surcharge, but did not allow for forgiveness of the loans, which is why the fees would have been bumped up higher. Each scenario, if accepted as presented, would have created approximately $400,000 in annual revenue for the SWEF.
However, after much discussion about the need to make the tough decisions, the Board voted 4-1 (Supervisor Tim Hansen voted no) on a modified B1. It chose to only raise the fees to $74/ton, but it denied forgiveness of the General Fund loans. This means, according to Dublino, that revenues to the SWEF will only be about $200,000.
“I won’t pass a fee increase right before I leave office,” Hansen said of his decision to vote no. “It’s a service to the public, let the County pay the whole thing.”
Fellow outgoing Supervisor Hap Hazard felt differently. “I’m ready to vote to make the tough decisions. I don’t like any of the alternatives, but putting it off will make things worse. I don’t want to leave the decision to a new supervisor.”
Supervisor Vikki Bauer agreed, “I don’t want to bear bad news but we have to take care of the dump.”
“Sometimes you gotta raise fees and this is one of them,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston. Both he and Bauer felt that the Board should have raised fees to a higher level two years ago. “We’re going to revisit this issue and make periodic adjustments to stay on top of it,” he added.
In regard to payback of the General Fund loan, the Supervisors agreed that the loan needed to be paid back.
“I’m not in favor of forgiving the loan,” Hazard said. “I would not have approved the loan [if it wasn’t going to be paid back], I would have let the system crash.”
The loan is being paid back by the SWEF, according to Dublino. The payback was worked into the $68.50, according to Johnston.
Bauer posed the question, however, of why it mattered whether the money sat in the SWEF or the General Fund since taxpayers pay both the tipping fees and taxes into the General Fund.
“It’s just pulling it out of one pocket and putting it into another,” she said.
“If we leave the money in solid waste, it has specific purposes,” Hazard said. “If it’s back in the General Fund it can be used for other things. It’s not one pocket to another.”
Below is the complete fee increase structure, effective Jan. 1, 2013:
MSW Fees from $68.50/ton to $74/ton (8%); Building C&D: from $50/ton to $74/ton (48%); Large Inerts: from $22/ton to $33/ton (50%); Transportation Surcharge at Transfer Stations of $20/ton; Impose $5 minimum on all organics and soil deliveries.
We’ve only just begun
According to Jeff Hansen (Supervisor Hansen’s brother), owner of Construction Specialty, a decrease in tonnage and raising fees at the dump aren’t the only issues the County should be worried about in regard to solid waste. At some point, Jeff told the Board on Tuesday, the California Air Resources Control Board is going to pull the trigger on stricter heavy equipment replacement standards.
“The equipment at the dump would have an extremely high cost of replacement,” Jeff pointed out. “When the Air Resources Control Board pulls the trigger, the equipment will have to be updated no matter what shape it’s in, and all of the County’s good work and intentions will be struck down and we’ll quickly be another $10 million in the hole. The increase of rates will be destroyed because of state mandates of replacing vehicles.”
In a follow up conversation, Jeff gave the example of the County’s water truck at the dump. “Right now, if it runs, it’s good, but with the new regulations it would be junk,” he said. “To replace a water truck is about $100,000.” So there goes half of the newly created revenue to the SWEF.
Jeff is aware of this issue because the state mandates currently apply to trucks and buses, and in his business, he has quite a few trucks. The mandates are an outcome of the government’s green agenda, he said. “They just want clean air, no matter what the consequence.” So every truck and bus in California over a certain age is condemned, no matter what shape it’s in, which means that people like Jeff will have their equipment become obsolete before they can actually pay it off.
“I had to sell one of my trucks to someone in Nevada because it couldn’t be used in California anymore,” Jeff said to illustrate the problem with the program. That company then used the truck to do work on Conway Summit.
The potential equipment impact is just one more reason why the County should get out of the landfill business, Dublino said on Wednesday. “It’s too expensive and we don’t have the volume [of waste]. Equipment would only be part of a discussion to continue the landfill.”
In a follow up email on Thursday, Dublino said, “Spoke with our fleet supervisor about our heavy equipment and found that pursuant to CARB requirements, the county will have to begin replacing or retrofitting its off-road diesel equipment by Jan 1, 2019. I think it is smarter to first determine whether we are going to need heavy equipment in 2019 before we go about funding retrofits or replacement.”