Johnston County Commissioners want to hear from the public before choosing a long-term funding model for trash and recycling services.
The board had planned to settle the matter last Monday but instead scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m. May 4 at the courthouse in Smithfield. A few months ago, when they invited residents to speak on the subject, commissioners got little response, Chairman Tony Braswell said. But interest has increased significantly because of recent media coverage, he said.
May 4, after the hearing, will be the “drop-dead date” for the board to make a decision, Braswell said. “We’ve got to take some kind of action,” he said. “For 10, 11, 12 years, we’ve talked about garbage and trash, so we need to move forward.”
Johnston runs its solid-waste department like a business, meaning it relies on revenue to cover expenses. But the department has been in the red for years.
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The main money losers are recycling and the county’s 12 solid waste convenience centers, which ran a combined deficit of $1.4 million last fiscal year. The department has previously made up the difference from savings, but those have run out. Starting July 1, Johnston faces the prospect of using tax dollars to cover any shortfall.
So far, county staff has come up with two possible solutions, County Manager Rick Hester said.
Hester described the first option as a three-legged stool, and he first presented it to commissioners on March 6.
For one leg, the county would begin ratcheting up the price of the window decals required to dump at the convenience sites. The fee is currently $65, but it needs to be $104 to make the service to pay for itself. To reduce sticker shock, the plan would increase the fee incrementally over the next 17 years.
The second leg would pay for recycling by adding $10 to all 72,000 property-tax bills in the county starting in fiscal year 2017-18, Hester said.
The third leg would use tax dollars to make up the difference until fiscal year 2031-32, when revenue from the first two legs would be strong enough to support the entire program, Hester said.
The second option, presented for the first time last Monday, would eliminate the window decals and rely entirely on recycling fees.
County residents who live in towns that provide garbage service would see $5 added to their property-tax bills, and everyone else would pay $51 extra, Hester said.
“These would be assessed on improved properties, not vacant properties,” he said.
Regardless of which option commissioners choose, Hester said no changes would go into effect until July 2016. For the upcoming fiscal year, Hester said the county will have to transfer $940,000 to solid waste from the general fund.
Johnston is among the few counties in North Carolina that uses fees instead of taxes to fund garbage and recycling services. Essentially, the board will decide next month whether it wants to remain an exception.
“What’s it’s going to boil down to is, do we have a decal program or do we not have one?” Braswell said. “That’s the basic question that we will have to answer.”
The hold-up is that many commissioners have ideological objections to any plan that would spread the cost across the tax base.
In defense of using fees, Commissioner Allen Mims said solid waste should operate like a business so that only the people who use the service pay for it. Water and sewer services operate as enterprises for the same reason, he said, because it would not be fair to charge people who have wells and septic tanks for services they do not use.
Mims said he did not like the idea of gradually raising the cost of the decal.
“What I hope we’ll do is fix the problem, not just put a Band-Aid on it; and fix it on day one, not spread it over 17 years” he said. “I’d like to see it done while I’m still alive.”