Smithfield Herald

Convenience centers struggling to make ends meet

Solid waste employee Carles Surles ropes off one of the "greenboxes" at the county landfill after residents have filled it up.
Solid waste employee Carles Surles ropes off one of the "greenboxes" at the county landfill after residents have filled it up.

Without a complete overhaul, Johnston leaders say, the county’s solid-waste convenience centers won’t be able to pay for themselves in a few years.

Currently, Johnston residents pay a $60 a year to carry their garbage and recyclables to one of 12 convenience sites around the county or to the county’s landfill. Johnston also collects money from private haulers who dump their trash at the landfill, including debris from construction sites

Tim Broome, the county’s director of public utilities, said those revenues have dropped in recent years. Garbage flow has decreased 25 percent since 2008, including about a 50-percent drop in construction debris.

Understandably, Johnston residents aren’t enthusiastic about paying $60 to use the convenience sites. And their reluctance shows in the revenue. The annual fee generates about $1 million, meaning most the county’s 60,000 households don’t bother to pay the fee.

The convenience sites – also known as “green boxes” for their green Dumpsters – cost about $1.7 million annually to operate, meaning they’re losing about $700,000 a year that the county has to find elsewhere.

“The revenue stream is getting thin, so it’s getting difficult to pay for the cost of the green box,” Broome said. “We’re solvent but barely.”

In the past, commissioners have questioned the wisdom of making people pay separately for access to the county’s landfill and convenience sites. The idea was to charge only the people who use the sites, but Commissioner Ted Godwin said the fee might be encouraging Johnstonians to litter instead of dispose of their trash properly.

“When you disincentivize using it, you’re going to have trash thrown on the road,” Godwin said at this month’s commissioners meeting.

In any case, county leaders agree the current model isn’t sustainable. County Manager Rick Hester said the program could survive another seven or eight years. After that, the county will have to find another way to pay for garbage disposal.

One solution is to tack a garbage fee onto every Johnston tax bill. That is what many counties do. Wake County, for example, charges $20 per dwelling unit; Harnett charges $70.

“That’s the way other counties do it,” Broome said. “Is that the best way to do it? I don’t know; that’s up to the commissioners to decide.”

Other funding options

Raising revenue is one option; cutting expenses is another, county leaders said. They could, for example, cut hours and even days of operation at some of the lesser-used sites.

Johnston could also use its vast landfill – which includes more than 600 acres of unused land – to store waste from other counties, which would pay Johnston for the privilege of dumping their garbage here. But that would shorten the lifespan of the landfill, which, if left unchanged, would last another 80 years.

But even if Johnston cut the landfill’s the lifespan in half, Broome said, it would still be in better shape than most counties. Many of them are struggling to find space for their garbage.

“A lot of counties would love to have a resource with a 40-year lifespan,” he said.

The last option would be to institute a “pay as you throw” program, where residents pay a small fee every time they used a convenience center or the landfill. Residents could buy charge cards, which they could swipe every time they entered and left. Broome said that would be costly and hard to manage.

Which ever solution prevails, solid-waste director Rick Proctor said he was sure commissioners would need to change the way the county collects trash. “If we don’t run it right, we may not have a convenience-site service,” he said.