Landfill debt leads to rate hike vote

Elkins City Council voted 5-2 Monday to approve on its first reading a proposed ordinance that would raise sanitation rates to prop up the financially strapped Elkins-Randolph County Landfill.

“I know you all don’t want to raise rates but we’re at a very bad point now,” City Treasurer Lisa Daniels-Smith told council members at the start of Monday’s meeting.

The proposed ordinance would raise residents’ garbage collection rates $6.25 per month, while commercial customers’ rates would increase $10.10 per month. The ordinance calls for a 32-percent increase to all customers, including fees for dumpsters and roll-offs.

The rate increase will help cover the landfill’s $333,700 in annual operating costs and $262,274 in outstanding debt. The landfill has been closed since September 2011 and has no revenue.

“(Operations Manager) Bob Pingley and I have worked very hard to make this the lowest (increase) possible,” Daniels-Smith said Monday.

Council had planned to vote on a landfill surcharge ordinance at the June 17 meeting, but instead tabled the issue to “redo” the numbers.

Under the original plan, new charges, totaling $10.34 per residential customer and $50.88 per commercial customer, would have been billed monthly as “landfill obligation” charges.

The proposed ordinance voted on Monday also calls for 6 percent of current sanitation fees to be redistributed as a landfill surcharge, creating annual revenue of $458,740 for the landfill. This amount will pay the annual operating costs and more than $100,000 in debts per year. The remaining $44,830.70 will be placed into an escrow account to provide funds to officially close the landfill, as required by the state Public Service Commission.

Council members thanked Daniels-Smith and Pingley for their hard work, but still expressed their misgivings about raising rates.

“One of the reasons this body voted to close the landfill was to save money and now we’re looking at a 32-percent rate increase for customers,” Councilman Mark Scott said.

Councilman Joe Sabatino said, “We’ve raised a lot of rates all over the board, and I hope it’s hit a peak, because I don’t know how much more the people of this town could take.”

“Ever since we closed the landfill we’ve dreaded this moment – because we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Sanitation/Landfill Committee Chairman Carman Metheny said. “If we get the debt paid off we could bring (the rates) back down.”

Council members also said there was plenty of blame to be shared among current and past city officials.

Councilman Jim Bibey said “previous administrations” could have approved “small incremental raises” to the rates and avoided the current situation, but instead they “ignored the problem.”

“Why didn’t we put a comprehensive recycling program in place years ago?” Scott asked. “Most municipalities our size have some kind of program.”

Several council members also said the Randolph County Commission should kick in funding to help with the landfill situation, because many county residents brought waste to the landfill during Free Days.

“The county should have made sanitation coverage mandatory,” Scott said, adding that after the closing of the landfill “the city has become the Randolph County landfill … they’re dumping it in our dumpsters because there’s nowhere else to put it…. the County Commission just kind of put the problem on us, and now we’re giving it to the residents, but not all the county residents, just our customers.”

Daniels-Smith said she would like to go before the County Commission, along with Mayor Van Broughton, council members and City Clerk Sutton Stokes, to “talk to the county” about the landfill issue.

Broughton said, “No one in this room wants to raise these rates … and we will talk to the county very soon … but we’re in a position where we’ve borrowed money and we need to pay that back.”

City Council voted in a special meeting May 11 to loan $60,000 from the city’s water fund to pay monthly expenses at the landfill. In May, officials said the money would keep the landfill afloat for two months.

Metheny made a motion to vote on the ordinance, which was seconded by Councilman Mitch Marstiller. During a roll call, Scott and Sabatino voted against approving the ordinance on first reading, while Metheny, Bibey, Marstiller, Councilwoman Marilynn Cuonzo and Councilman Gene Ochsendorf voted to approve the ordinance on first reading.

Council members Nanci Bross-Fregonara, Lonnie Randall and Bob Woolwine were not present during Monday’s meeting.

The ordinance must be voted on during two readings to be officially approved. A public hearing will be held before the vote at the next City Council meeting, set for July 18 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

After the meeting, Pingley noted that the proposed ordinance did not create a new “landfill surcharge” fee for customers to pay, as had been considered, but only increased the collection rates.

During the meeting, Pingley pointed out that, even after officially closing the landfill to PSC specifications, the city is looking at “30 years worth of maintenance on it and treatment of the leachate. So there had to be some kind of funding mechanism set up.”

Pingley said that across the state, $15 to $25 per month is the average for garbage collection.

“We’re in the upper range of that, unfortunately,” he said. The current resident’s rate is $19.54, and would go to $25.79 under the proposed ordinance.

Also during Monday’s meeting:

  • Broughton asked that council members “remember (former Mayor) Duke Talbott in our thoughts and prayers. He will be having surgery this Friday.”

Scott, who said the prayer at the beginning of the meeting, included mentions of Talbott and his upcoming surgery.