A regional trash hauler that got its start a century ago collecting garbage with horse-drawn wagons is positioning itself for a potentially big expansion.
With the countywide solid waste system in flux, Sunshine Disposal & Recycling is hoping to persuade Spokane Valley city leaders to let it take over what amounts to a major piece of the region’s garbage market. The move could shave at least a quarter of a million dollars per year off the estimated cost that Valley residents would shoulder under the regional system envisioned by Spokane County.
But it also could lead to a splintered, city-by-city approach to everything from trash and yard waste disposal to state-mandated recycling and solid waste reduction strategies, particularly since other cities are closely watching Spokane Valley’s negotiations heading into this week’s county-imposed deadline for joining the regional system.
“The council wanted options to compare,” said Spokane Valley City Manager Mike Jackson, noting that nothing in either the Sunshine proposal or the county plan would affect existing curbside service by Waste Management. “The county hasn’t given us a guaranteed rate … Sunshine has.”
Although consumers likely would see little difference, the political stakes are high.
Millions of dollars are spent annually disposing of the region’s garbage and whoever controls the state-mandated system determines how it’s handled and where it goes. The existing regional plan, which has been controlled for two decades by the city of Spokane, expires this fall and Spokane County struck a deal to take over the existing trash transfer sites at Colbert along U.S. Highway 2 and in the Valley just off Sullivan Road.
Cities have the option of developing and managing their own solid waste plans, though most statewide sign on with regional systems controlled by counties.
Sunshine operates its own transfer site in Spokane Valley north of Interstate 90 that would need to be expanded and renovated to accommodate the additional tonnage arriving for long-haul to regional landfills either in south-central Washington or Wenatchee, and to handle recyclables, yard waste and a potential influx of self-haulers.
“We have an engineered site study and have had a preconstruction conference already,” said Sunshine President Marc Torre, adding that the site has had no trouble in the past handling more than twice the estimated 45,000 tons of garbage Spokane Valley generates annually. “We are going to make sure there aren’t issues.”
Under the Sunshine proposal, Valley disposal rates would be $98.15 per ton and any future rate increases would be kept below inflation over the next 10 years. Spokane County has provided an estimate of $104.56 per ton and gives no indication how rate increases will be handled but would give the Valley the ability to opt out of the agreement in three years if it’s unsatisfied. Both would have minimum self-hauling charges of about $15 per load, which is a key issue in the Valley because 38 percent of households haul their own garbage rather than pay Waste Management to pick it up each week.
The county’s estimated $47 per ton rate on yard waste, with a $5 minimum load charge, is cheaper than Sunshine’s $50-per-ton rate with a $10 minimum load charge.
Sunshine would haul the garbage to regional landfills. The county has obligated itself to send garbage to Spokane’s Waste-to-Energy Plant for at least three years but then may explore regional landfill options, which traditionally have been less expensive than the incinerator, though Spokane officials say they’re trying to cut costs and reduce rates.
This Tuesday, Valley officials are expected to decide whether to continue pursuing the Sunshine option and stressed last week that they remain open to joining the county system but want to look for the best deal for residents.
Meanwhile, the reluctance of several cities to quickly sign on with the proposed regional plan has exposed widespread mistrust within the political establishment over Spokane County’s ability to control spending and contain costs.
“The county is expecting everybody to sign on without guaranteeing a rate,” said Spokane Valley Mayor Dean Grafos, noting also that cities would be limited to a nonbinding advisory role on management of the regional system. Similar concerns have been raised by Liberty Lake, Airway Heights, Millwood and Deer Park, all of which are exploring other options.
“Our problem with the county is they’re not giving us any prices,” Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing said. “They just say, ‘Trust us.’ ”
Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman raises concerns about the inability to control future costs as well. “We get an advisory role and that’s it,” he said. “We end up locking ourselves into an agreement without any voice.”
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke acknowledged the frustrations but defended the approach.
“What we’re trying to do is pool our resources and get the best buying power we can,” Mielke said. “Once we know how much tonnage will be in the system, then we’ll go out to bid, and under Washington state law, we award the bid to the lowest-cost responsible bidder.”
He said participating cities would provide recommendations on rates and annual budgets. The county chose to retain final control, however, because he said past efforts to establish joint governance fell apart when large cities were unwilling to yield equal control to cities representing minor amounts of the total tonnage being handled.
State regulators worry that cities choosing to develop their own solid waste plans don’t realize how many administrative and educational functions are required, though Spokane Valley has earmarked $125,000 a year that’s built in to the proposed Sunshine rate to cover those required costs and would become eligible for state recycling grants.
“I’d be interested to see how they plan to provide … what are often called the ancillary services,” said Jim Wavada, a solid waste planner at the state Department of Ecology. “Under a regional system those are generally provided by the county and cities are covered when they become part of that system.”