City, county at odds over garbage

Gary B. Gray • Nov 14, 2012 at 9:58 PM

Is the tail wagging the dog?

That’s basically how City Commissioners described Washington County’s plan to build a solid waste transfer station that will direct refuse and money away from Iris Glen Environmental Landfill and into an alternative site offering the lowest disposal fees.

“The new transfer station would subject the city and county to compete,” Erick Herrin, an attorney representing the city, said early Wednesday morning at a special called meeting of the City Commission. “The market has changed, and it’s not that easy to restructure the way a landfill operates. The county has always gotten a generous rate at Iris Glen.

“We can’t really have the tail wagging the dog at this point,” he said. “In a blunt way, the county is saying, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ The city is trying to say, ‘hey, look what you’re getting.’ We cannot go out and lowball the bids.”

With the county receiving bids/proposals today, commissioners on Wednesday unanimously voted to have City Manager Pete Peterson immediately enter into negotiations with Houston-based Waste Management, which operates the landfill for the city.

One possibility being considered is that Waste Management submit to the county a competitive disposal rate for their consideration — a proposal Peterson said could save the county “well into six digits.” Another proposal is for the city to expand services to include curbside service county-wide, close or modify convenience centers and remove $1 million from the county’s general fund as a contribution for the services.

“In the early 1990s, the city stepped up and made a big decision for Northeast Tennessee,” Peterson said. “The city made a huge investment. It was an answer to everyone’s problem at the time. If the county does this, in all likelihood it would force an increase in our fees. This is going to be a very difficult task.”

The county has a site in mind for a transfer station costing up to $750,000 on Harmony Road between Jonesborough Springs and Fall Branch. County residents would be able to bring waste to the site. It then would be taken by the county to “the least expensive landfill,” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said late Wednesday.

“Never,” Eldridge quickly replied to the question of whether the county would want to pursue county-wide residential pickup and disposal. “Johnson City owns the franchise, and that would prevent the county from being in that business. Our expectation is that we’ll receive numerous bids. However, if Johnson City has a creative solution, we’ll be interested in hearing it.”

Peterson said the new transfer station would mean those receiving curbside service would be facing higher prices.

“We feel the transfer station is not a good move,” he said. “We feel it will ultimately be harmful to the WCUD (Washington County Utility District). If this waste goes somewhere else, it will decrease tonnage at the landfill. They’re (county) going to be locked in for 10 to 20 years to cover their expense, and that will come out of their general fund — a fund the city contributes to significantly through property taxes and other taxes.”

Vice Mayor Phil Carriger said he was, in his opinion, “disturbed that we’re not seen as part of the family.”

“If nothing else, the transfer station provides the county with the ability to dispose of its waste at the most competitive cost,” Eldridge said. “This is a business decision. And, Washington County is not a party of the agreement between the city and Waste Management. We’re trying to accomplish two things: lower disposal costs and minimize our transportation costs.”

The city disposes of about 200,000 tons of waste at the landfill each year. About 13,000-14,000 tons come from the county, and several thousand tons come from Jonesborough.

As things stand today, the city’s Solid Waste Division picks up residential waste within the county WCUD — which is owned by the city but excludes Jonesborough — at about 6,000 to 8,000 locations and takes that to Iris Glen. The county has five convenience centers, two of which sit on city-owned property. These “bins” are taken to Iris Glen by the county.

When Iris Glen began operating in earnest in 1994, its fees were $22 per ton for waste generated in Johnson City and Washington County, $25 per ton for all waste generated outside Washington County and $12 per ton for all non commercial residential vehicles.

Waste Management performed an unexpected about-face about one year ago when it reduced the landfill’s $83, two-ton minimum to a $40.29 one-ton minimum fee which mainly affects the area’s “small haulers.” Company officials said the offer was made following a public outcry over inconveniences caused when the minimum rate jumped by about 400 percent two months prior.

“This is when the county began pursuing alternatives to the current agreement,” Eldridge said.

Today, the “gate rate” at Iris Glen for waste coming from 26 counties is about $43 a ton, according to a company employee. That applies to residential, commercial and “small haulers,” whether the amount is 1 pound or 2,000 pounds.

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