Garbage plan loses steam
County, Spokane Valley think own system could save money
County support for preserving the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System seemed to wane Tuesday as commissioners prepared for a two-day summit next week.
The city of Spokane owns and operates the system now, but the county and other cities want a regional organization to take over.
However, a new report suggests the county and Spokane Valley could build a system of their own that would reduce costs, or at least keep the current $98-a-ton cost from rising.
County Solid Waste Director Bill Wedlake said “back-of-a-napkin” calculations indicate a substantial saving is possible by sending garbage to distant landfills instead of Spokane’s Waste-to-Energy Plant.
Wedlake said the informal analysis – with Spokane Valley Public Works Director Neil Kersten and private garbage haulers – assumes a long-haul disposal rate of $50 a ton.
The total cost would be less than $85 a ton, including construction of two new transfer stations, the need to start paying a 3.6 percent state tax and additional operating costs that were pulled from actual 2008 data.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said Solid Waste System projections show little or no reduction in the current cost, even though debt on the system’s centerpiece incinerator will be paid off this year. Bond payments cost $39.43 a ton in 2008.
The anticipated savings disappear in part because of proposals to pay $18 million for Waste-to-Energy Plant improvements and for Spokane to start levying utility taxes on the operation.
Mielke said the situation might be “very different” if not for the proposed utility taxes – 20 percent on waste disposal and 6 percent on garbage-generated electricity.
Spokane would share the taxes with other governments, but commissioners are as wary as if they’d been handed the wrong end of a red-hot poker.
Commissioner Mark Richard said he is “absolutely not” willing to impose the taxes on his constituents, even indirectly.
“I don’t have any desire to impose any fee that generates a revenue stream back to the general fund,” Richard said. “Not without voter approval.”
And commissioners see no practical way to return their share of the money to residents of unincorporated areas.
Chairman Al French agreed with Richard that ratepayers have been told for years that garbage-disposal costs would drop when construction bonds were retired.
“It’s hard for me to go back to the ratepayer and say, ‘You’ve spent 20 years paying off the mortgage and now your payment is going up,’ ” French said.
He said Mayor Mary Verner told him that transferring ownership of the plant to a new regional organization would be a “deal-breaker” in the Solid Waste Summit planned Feb. 2 and 3.
City officials believe they can’t levy more than a 6 percent utility tax without owning the plant, French said.
However, Seattle attorney Steve DiJulio, who represents the county on solid waste issues, said a contractual arrangement could allow Spokane to collect utility taxes only on its residents.
Even so, Richard said a “more fundamental” issue is whether a new regional organization would be locked into using the Waste-to-Energy Plant. He believes the plant is unlikely to meet the county’s goal of providing the lowest-cost service.
Inability to consider other disposal methods could be a deal-breaker for him, Richard said.