Council asks Voters to Decide: Solid Waste Plan A or Plan B?
On November 8th, voters in San Juan County will choose between two alternative ways of providing and funding recycling and solid waste disposal services. The County Council formally agreed this week to forward the choice to the voters.
Friday, Aug 12 2011 -
County Council Solid Waste Subcommittee Chair Patty Miller noted that both alternatives would change the current solid waste system because, “The economics of the current system have failed.”
The amount of solid waste brought to San Juan County waste facilities has declined each year since 2007. The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear, but nationally, decreases in solid waste volume have been attributed to the economic recession that has slowed construction, reduced the cash available for discretionary purchases, and – in some part – to a stronger participation in reuse and recycle programs.
Adding to the decline here, increases in fees charged at County solid waste facilities caused the Town of Friday Harbor to pull out of the County system and haul its garbage directly to the mainland.
San Juan County has unique challenges in handling solid waste because it is comprised of islands, only some of which are served by ferries. For several decades, the County has addressed those challenges by servicing its communities through solid waste facilities on each of its three largest islands. Each of these facilities has substantial fixed costs for maintaining infrastructure and staff. Mainland communities, whose waste systems have a similar or even much larger customer base, are able to provide service with a single facility.
Reductions in the volume of garbage here have created a critical situation because the solid waste program relies almost entirely on income from fees based on the weight or volume of the waste brought to its facilities. For many years this revenue was sufficient to cover costs.
Now, because of the declining volume of waste and increasing costs for state-mandated capital improvements, the economics of the system have failed. In the past three years, despite cuts in staff and service hours, the system’s expenditures have exceeded revenue by more than $1 million. In March 2011, the Council agreed to prepare a ballot measure that would give the citizens of San Juan County a choice of how solid waste services will be delivered and paid for.
The alternative that will appear on the November 8th ballot has been dubbed, “Plan A.” It would maintain the current three-facility system and reinstate some services historically provided to the outer islands. It would be financed, in part, by a new annual charge on developed property, along with reduced tipping fees for both garbage and recycling and a “gate” fee at County solid waste facilities. The Council will regard a no vote on Plan A as a vote in favor of Plan B.
Under Plan B, the system would continue to operate with volume-based revenue, primarily with “roadside” collection of garbage and recycling by a certified hauler. The Council has agreed to make County facilities available for lease to a private enterprise if one wanted to provide drop off services.
Solid Waste Subcommittee Chair Miller commented, “The solution that would work best for each household will depend on how you individually manage your waste. For some citizens Plan A will result in a lower cost and services more aligned with your needs. Other citizens may judge Plan B to be the system of choice. Both options will achieve the primary goal of ensuring a reliable means of disposing of our waste and recyclables. The Council is asking voters to decide which system is most closely aligned with their values and needs environmentally, economically and for convenience.”
Over the course of the next few weeks, the County will publish a series of articles and news releases that explain the advantages and disadvantages of each program in detail. Additionally some council members will host Town Hall meetings on the various islands in September and October to answer further questions.
The County Council urges voters to read the articles, attend the public meetings and cast an informed vote in November.