Ready for life without SPSA?

Published 10:42 pm Monday, December 22, 2008

The days of Suffolk getting a free ride to the landfill may soon be over.

Officials with the Southeastern Public Service Authority announced last week that the regional waste disposal agency’s pitiful financial condition had led them to seriously consider selling assets and closing its doors. The move is sure to throw municipal budgets throughout Hampton Roads into limbo, as city councils and boards of supervisors from SPSA’s participating communities struggle to identify the impact of life without the Authority — or, at least, life with a limited version of the group that has been responsible for disposing of Hampton Roads’ trash for more than 20 years.

Members of the Authority will determine during the next couple of weeks their most prudent course of action in the face of a debt that stands at more than $234 million and grows with each passing month. If the agency were to make no changes, officials say, its paying members would face skyrocketing fees for trash disposal.

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The distinction between paying members and the special class inhabited by the cities of Suffolk and Virginia Beach is an important one. In deals that were struck when the Authority was formed, Suffolk pays nothing to dump its trash in the SPSA landfill (a concession based on the fact that the city hosts the landfill), and Virginia Beach pays a reduced and capped rate (a concession based on the fact that the Beach wouldn’t cooperate otherwise).

Suffolk, especially, will be impacted by the dissolution of SPSA and the resultant loss of its free dumping privileges. Since SPSA’s charter called for its operation only through 2018, the city’s current quandary was inevitable. Only the timing was ever really in question, as SPSA’s mismanagement and escalating debt occasionally threatened the alliance in recent years.

Given the long, recent history of the Authority’s foibles, it would be reassuring to know that Suffolk’s leaders have a plan in place for dealing with the post-SPSA future that now suddenly seems so real and so imminent. How will they protect taxpayers from the shock of an entirely new budget category worth millions of dollars each year?

If such a plan exists, city leaders would do well to disclose it soon.