Imagine a governmental entity assessing you a fee specifically for not using one of its services.
This is what St. Lawrence County has been doing for nearly three years to privately owned and operated waste haulers. They have increasingly been bringing trash directly to the landfill in Rodman overseen by the Development Authority of the North Country. The surcharge for bypassing one of the countys four transfer stations was established at $2 per ton during the Jan. 3, 2011, meeting of the Board of Legislators.
Revenue generated by the surcharge offsets expenses incurred by the county to maintain its three closed landfills at Canton, Massena and Ogdensburg. They were closed in the 1990s and overseen by the Solid Waste Disposal Authority. In 1997, the county created its own Solid Waste Department and took over the maintenance of the landfills.
Since 2011, the surcharge has increased to $4.50 per ton. Legislators had the good sense to table a proposal Monday by Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-Hermon, who wanted to jack the rate to $18.40 per ton.
Mr. Morrill argued that substantially increasing the surcharge would be an incentive for waste haulers to use one of the countys four transfer stations in Gouverneur, Massena, Ogdensburg and Star Lake. County officials have looked for ways to reduce the $137-per-ton tipping fee imposed on haulers who bring their trash to a county transfer station.
This measure would hurt Casella Waste Services, the largest private hauler in the county, the most. Chester W. Bisnett, general manager of the Potsdam-based firm, said the higher surcharge would cost the company nearly $500,000 more a year.
This would be unfortunate as Casella has picked up work that the Solid Waste Department cant perform, and county officials know it. The company is exempt from the flow control law because St. Lawrences transfer stations could not handle Casellas tonnage level.
Legislators recognized at their last meeting that quadrupling the surcharge was a bad idea. We all must acknowledge now that the waste management system the county operates has evolved into something that is unworkable.
The county obviously needs money to maintain the three closed landfills, an obligation mandated to it by the state. So it has used revenue from the landfill surcharge and transfer station tipping fees for this purpose.
The escalating costs of upgrading equipment and funding retirement benefits for former employees prompted county officials last year to consider privatizing the Solid Waste Department. But they opted to retain control of the department while not developing a better financing plan.
So while the need for an ongoing stream of revenue is there, the challenge is how to amass it equitably. Representatives of waste hauling companies expressed concerns at Mondays meeting that they would bear the brunt of these expenses, and they have a point.
More county residents have turned to private waste haulers because its more cost-effective. And waste haulers are bringing more trash directly to the Rodman landfill because this is less expensive. So when a government agency goes after additional fees for increased non-usage of a service, there is definitely a problem.
Its time to begin a discussion about how to ease the county out of the solid waste business and turn this function over to the private sector. Market forces will ensure these operations are done efficiently provided there is adequate competition. The county could then focus on direct funding for maintaining the closed landfills, not incurring personnel and equipment costs to run transfer stations.
The challenge, then, is to move these services from the county to private companies without creating a monopoly in the process. There are no easy answers on how to resolve this issue, but at least we know what option isnt working. Simply maintaining the status quo will only make the situation worse in the near future.