After years of discussions and negotiations over regional garbage disposal, Spokane Valley is going its own way and a handful of other cities appear poised to follow.
Valley leaders decided unanimously this week to contract with Sunshine Disposal & Recycling to handle transfer and disposal of the estimated 45,000 tons of garbage collected throughout the city each year instead of joining the regional system envisioned by Spokane County.
The decision quashes an effort years in the making to maintain a unified countywide system to dispose garbage. Spokane County and all the cities and towns in it have disposed most trash through the Spokane Regional Waste System for more than 20 years at the Waste-to-Energy Plant.
“We’re acting in the best longterm interests of our citizens,” said Mayor Dean Grafos, dismissing a last-minute request from county commissioners to give them time to try to beat Sunshine’s rate.
With millions spent each year disposing of the region’s garbage, Grafos and others said the Valley wanted shared management in a countywide system to help control future costs. The county, however, repeatedly offered only an advisory role. Then, when the Valley sought the kind of rate certainty and terms it expects when evaluating any potential contract, the mayor said the county would offer only estimates and contingencies.
Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard called the county’s pitch for more time to try arranging a better rate an encouraging development but described it as too little, too late.
“If you’re going to deal with the city of Spokane Valley, please give us your best. Give us the facts. And let us make a decision,” he said.
Most residents will notice little, if any, change. Waste Management still will handle curbside residential pickup but will dump the trash at Sunshine’s transfer site along University Road north of Interstate 90. Currently the trash is taken to the county’s transfer station off of Sullivan Road. Valley residents who haul their own garbage also will have to take it to the Sunshine site, which is being expanded to accommodate the additional traffic and improve its ability to handle recycling and yard waste disposal.
City leaders say the Sunshine contract provides control and specificity. The total rate is $98.15 per ton, and future rate increases would be held below inflation, which they say will save residents an estimated $250,000 a year over what they would have paid in disposal fees under the county’s initial estimate. Sunshine plans to ship the garbage to regional landfills, which traditionally have been a cheaper option than Spokane’s trash incinerator.
Sunshine President Marc Torre said the base Spokane-area disposal rate, under government-operated disposal systems, hasn’t been that low since 1996.
But by breaking off on its own, the Valley is potentially causing a shakeup in the county system because – as the region’s second-largest city – it accounts for a significant portion of the total garbage generated each year.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke described the Valley’s decision as fiscally irresponsible.
Mielke said Spokane, which owns the energy-producing trash incinerator on the West Plains, is trying to get approval to cut its rates so the county could lower the amount it charges and potentially offer a rate nearly $4 per ton less than Sunshine’s proposal. As part of the deal it struck with Spokane to take over the existing garbage transfer sites, the county agreed to send all trash to the incinerator for at least three years.
He said Spokane estimated it would need three weeks to get approval for the lower rate, which is why he asked the Valley to hold off. He was discouraged that council members who put such importance on rates were unwilling to wait just a few weeks longer to get a better deal, he said.
“This will cost residents over $3 million over the next 10 years,” Mielke said. “As elected officials, their first responsibility is fiduciary.”
Valley officials, however, dismissed the criticism, saying it’s just another pitch with no guarantees and suggested that neither Spokane nor the county would have spent any time thinking of ways to cut costs had it not been for Sunshine’s willingness to step forward.
Meanwhile, the cities of Cheney and Airway Heights also have decided against joining the county’s regional system.
Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing said the city is negotiating with Sunshine, which has offered essentially the same terms it offered the Valley, and expects to have a contract signed in the next few weeks.
Liberty Lake also is negotiating with Sunshine but has agreed to hold off on a final decision to see what the county is able to do.
“We are defining a path forward with Sunshine” but still evaluating options, said Liberty Lake City Administrator Katy Allen. Among the concerns, though, is that with the Valley going its own way, the county may have to make adjustments to account for the loss of that expected revenue and Allen said Liberty Lake will be watching to see if it impacts service levels.
Ken Gimpel, the city of Spokane’s assistant utilties director, said the Valley’s decision will reduce the amount of trash burned at the Waste-to-Energy Plant by less than one-fifth. Although the city will lose revenue as a result of the Valley sending its garbage elsewhere, the city of Spokane still will hold rate increases to no more than inflation.
“The Valley issue has no impact on the citizens of the city of Spokane whatsoever,” he said.
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