Clayton News-Star

Johnston leaders divided on funding trash, recycling

The Johnston County landfill makes money but not enough to subsidize the county’s solid waste convenience centers.
The Johnston County landfill makes money but not enough to subsidize the county’s solid waste convenience centers. FILE PHOTO

Tony Braswell is ready to see his legacy as County Commissioners’ chairman become trash.

More specifically, he wants a long-term funding solution for Johnston’s trash and recycling services.

The county’s landfill sustains itself on the tipping fees charged to haulers. But that revenue isn’t enough to subsidize recycling and the county’s 12 solid waste convenience centers – services that lost a combined $1.4 million last fiscal year.

At a March 6 work session, it quickly became clear that no two commissioners agree on how to stem the losses. But Braswell said he would put the matter on the April 6 agenda to ensure the board takes action. Between now and then, he aims to draft a proposal that everyone, or at least a majority, will vote to approve.

The funding shortfall is nothing new, but it will come to a head in the 2015-16 budget.

“We’ve talked about this for 10 years. and, to date, we haven’t done anything,” Braswell said. “Sometimes tough decisions are tough, and that’s why we sit here. We’ve got to make a decision.”

Last fiscal year, recycling cost the county $1.22 million, but selling the reclaimed materials generated just $375,000. Similarly, operating the convenience centers cost $1.5 million, while the windshield decals required to access the sites brought in just $931,305.

In the past, the solid waste department has used savings to cover the losses, but that money has run out. Starting next fiscal year, Johnston has to find that $1.4 million elsewhere.

For the services to break even, County Manager Rick Hester said Johnston would need to add a $10 recycling fee to all 72,000 property bills in the county and raise the cost of decals to $104 from $65. To ease the shock of those increases, Hester proposed ratcheting up the fees over the next 17 years and making up the difference until then with money from the general fund.

Hester referred to the plan as a three-legged stool, but Braswell said at least one of the legs would not stand.

“Quite frankly, the recycling fee is dead on arrival,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t see any action on it in the next two to three years.”

That’s because most commissioners say they consider it unfair to tax everyone for a service that many people do not use. Most Johnston towns provide waste and recycling services and charge their residents accordingly. Also, many people who live in rural Johnston pay private haulers to collect their refuse.

Commissioner Ted Godwin showed the most interest in spreading the cost of waste management across the entire tax base.

“I’m not in favor of the government doing everything; I’m a conservative guy,” he said. “But I think it’s a basic function just like education. The county’s better when we have a collective, all-together effort to deal with trash instead of dealing with it like a business.”

Among North Carolina counties, Johnston is unusual in using decal fees instead of tax dollars to fund garbage and recycling services. Still, commissioners here seem inclined to hike the decal fee instead of doing away with it. The concern is if the cost goes up too quickly, people will stop paying the fee or find new ways to game the system.

In addition to raising the decal fee, Braswell said the county could subsidize its money-losing services by taking advantage of extra space at the landfill. Johnston has 75 or more years worth of room at the landfill, Braswell said, and it could contract with haulers from outside the county to generate more revenue from tipping fees.

The funding dilemma does have an element of irony to it.

Except for Godwin, all of the commissioners who spoke said they oppose creating a recycling fee that would tax all property owners. However, unless the board agrees on a funding plan at its April meeting, the burden will wind up being spread in the broadest of ways.

“If there is no consensus (in April), by default you’ve made a decision: It’s coming out of the general fund,” Braswell said.

Hamlin: 919-836-5768