Once again, Johnston County Commissioners have decided to kick the trash can down the road.
Last week, instead of settling on a long-term funding solution for trash and recycling, the board voted to buy itself two more years to devise a plan.
In the meantime, Johnston will continue to require window decals to carry trash and recyclables to the county’s 12 convenience sites. For the fiscal year starting July 1, the price of a decal will remain at $65 a year. Next summer, the cost will jump to $100.
That extra time will come at a hefty price to county coffers – an estimated $1.57 million from the taxpayer-funded general fund over the next two years.
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That’s because Johnston’s convenience centers and recycling program will continue to lose money while staff searches for a new funding model. By default, the commissioners will use the general fund to cover that shortfall until they agree to a different plan.
While two years sounds like a long time, the problem has persisted for more than a decade without a solution. The issue came to a head this year because the solid-waste department, which Johnston operates like a business, no longer has enough savings to cover its deficits.
If commissioners fail to act by July 2017 and simply leave the price of decals at $100, County Manager Rick Hester said Johnston would need to budget about $600,000 a year from the general fund to cover the shortfall. On top of that cost, Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour said, continuing to pull from the general fund will reduce the amount of money Johnston can borrow the next time it needs to issue bonds to build schools.
“You’ve got to decide, because we don’t want to deal with this problem, is it going to cost us an elementary or middle school?” Barbour said.
Commissioners had planned to hold a vote in April but pushed the date back a month to give residents a chance to share their opinions at a public hearing. Sixteen people took the opportunity to speak, and enough others turned out to listen that the audience overflowed into the hallway outside the commissioners’ meeting room.
The board came into the meeting with two options on the table. One called for ratcheting up the decal fee over time, adding a $10 recycling fee to property tax bills and using the general fund to make up the difference. The second would have eliminated the decal program and fully funded solid waste with property taxes. Residents in towns with trash service would have paid $5 a year, and everyone else would have paid $51 extra.
Over the course of 50 minutes, residents spoke for and against those funding plans, and they offered a number of their own creative ideas. Suggestions included charging a fee on license plates instead of property tax bills; collecting a cash payment each time someone dumps at a convenience site; and tacking a small disposal fee onto the price of all goods sold in the county.
Richard Upton, owner of Zack’s Char-Grill, said he was taxed to death already in Smithfield. Upton opposed adding a fee to property-tax bills, he said, because it would be unfair to those who never use county garbage services.
“I don’t even know where the dump is, and I don’t want to pay for something I’m not using,” Upton said. “If everybody in here who doesn’t eat with me would pay to subsidize my business, I’ll pay for the (garbage service).”
Robert Beach, who lives just west of Smithfield’s town limits, said it would be better to charge a property-tax fee. The problem with the decal system, Beach said, is that people look for ways to skirt the cost. Instead of paying for a sticker, he said, many throw their trash in the woods and alongside roads.
“I’m not happy with all the damn trash that is strewn all over the road,” Beach said. “Just last week before I mowed, I had to pick up two dirty diapers laying by my mailbox. I mean, what kind of people do this stuff?”
After the public hearing, commissioners spent another 45 minutes discussing the issue among themselves.
Commissioner Ted Godwin gave the only explicit support for completely eliminating the decal. Johnston needs to remove any barriers that prevent people from properly disposing of their trash, he said. It makes sense to spread the cost of the service, he said, because everyone benefits from a county with less trash strewn about it.
While the government should not do everything, Godwin said, it does need to provide some services for the public good. Godwin likened waste management to other services the county funds through property taxes, such as the school system, fire protection, emergency medical services and the sheriff’s office.
“Most of us in here have probably never had to call a fire truck, but the county’s better off because we can,” he said. “This is a government function, we all share in the benefits of it, and we should all share in the cost of it.”
Other commissioners, including Allen Mims, disagreed fundamentally with Godwin’s philosophy. Mims said waste management is more similar to services like water and sewer, for which the county charges residents based on what they use. To that end, Mims said he would like to see Johnston use punch cards instead of window decals. That way, instead of paying an annual fee, he said, people would pay based on how many times they use the convenience sites.
Commissioner Chad Stewart said the county does have a trash problem, but he said he could not support pushing the bill off on property owners.
“The tax bill just can’t be the goose that lays the golden egg all the time,” he said.
The board eventually elected to raise the decal fee next year and postpone a long-term decision. Godwin cast the only opposing vote, and he said Johnston is one of, if not the only, county in North Carolina that requires residents to buy decals to use waste-management services. Somewhat befuddled, Godwin asked whether any of the other commissioners could explain what makes Johnston different from everyone else.
Chairman Tony Braswell said he had thought a lot about that point. It’s the county’s diverse population, he said, that makes it hard to devise a system that is fair to everyone. In west Johnston, residents live in suburbs and are more likely to pay for private haulers, he said. That means they use the convenience sites less often than those in east Johnston, which is more rural.
“Johnston County is basically two different counties,” Braswell said. “So one shoe fits all, for the demographics we have, is going to be hard.”