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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County may take control of area garbage system

Control of Spokane’s regional garbage management system would shift from City Hall to the county courthouse under a reorganization intended to improve the system’s political fairness. But residents aren’t likely to see any change in their service, officials say.

Commissioners have scheduled a public hearing Tuesday to consider the future of garbage across the county.

The issue dates to nearly a quarter-century ago, when Spokane, Spokane County and other cities teamed up to close landfills and build a new garbage system with an incinerator and electrical plant on Geiger Boulevard, and two outlying transfer and recycling stations.

Control over the system was handed to the city of Spokane, which at the time had the financial power through its ratepayers to back bonds sold for construction of the system. Agreements made at the time will expire in November 2014.

Under the least-costly option for future garbage collection, the city would turn over control of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System and give the county the ownership of transfer and recycling stations along U.S. Highway 2 at Colbert and on Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley.

In return, the city would get a commitment from the county to provide garbage for at least seven years to the incinerator, which the city would retain and operate.

The wholesale cost of disposal would be $65 a ton initially, increasing at the rate of inflation in subsequent years. That price would not cause a spike in residential and commercial rates, officials said.

Other options for future garbage collection, including hauling garbage to regional dumps, were all more expensive as outlined in a consultant’s study this year.

The option under consideration by commissioners Tuesday would “be invisible and transparent to the customers,” said Ken Gimpel, business manager for the solid waste system. It would also keep the existing system unified, he said.

But one municipality has yet to agree to the reorganization. Spokane Valley City Council members are asking to take ownership of the Sullivan Road recycling and transfer station, but county commissioners say they won’t go along with that because the facility serves a broader area, including Millwood, Liberty Lake and other small cities.

Spokane Valley is the only municipality in the county questioning the proposed new arrangement, officials said.

To break away from the countywide system, Spokane Valley would have to undertake a costly and detailed effort to develop its own system in compliance with strict state laws, and that’s unlikely to be cheaper for residents, officials said.

Currently, Spokane Valley residents aren’t required to pay for weekly garbage collection; they have the option of hauling it themselves to the transfer station at a subsidized charge.

Spokane residents don’t have that choice. They have to buy garbage services under city law, and part of the fees go for recycling, hazardous waste control, illegal dumping cleanup, public education and other regional services, including exhaustive planning required by the state.

Valley residents who haul garbage to the transfer station ultimately pay less for garbage disposal and are not contributing to those ancillary services required by the state, which the Spokane Valley City Council would have to address if it establishes its own system.

“At the end of the day, why would you replicate that when the county is going to provide those services?” Gimpel said.

At the same time, garbage coming from Spokane Valley helps reduce costs to all county residents through economies of scale.

“The important thing is we choose an option that is going to be beneficial to the regular customers – hopefully an option that will keep the tonnage of waste in one system so we can get economies of scale and the best rate for ratepayers,” said Kevin Cooke, county utilities director.