Suffolk’s problem with SPSA

Published 11:33 pm Thursday, January 8, 2009

Suffolk’s problem with the Southeastern Public Service Authority is a different one than the problem the rest of Hampton Roads has with the organization.

As the regional solid waste disposal agency rattles along toward its inglorious and seemingly inevitable end in a sea of red ink, most of the eight localities comprising the organization are worried about near-term problems such as skyrocketing tipping fees.

Already stinging from the knowledge that they pay more than almost every other U.S. community to dispose of their trash, the cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Portsmouth and Norfolk and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton all got the gut-punch of the year this week, when the Authority’s board of directors agreed to put forward a plan whereby those rates would be doubled. The proposed $245-per-ton tipping fees would put SPSA in a class all alone.

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For Suffolk and Virginia Beach — both of which negotiated sweetheart deals at SPSA’s inception — there is no short-term pain, regardless of how high those rates go. In exchange for hosting the landfill, Suffolk pays nothing to dispose of its waste there, and Virginia Beach’s rates are capped at less than $60 in exchange for its participation.

Especially for Suffolk, the arrangement contributes to a false sense of security regarding the future of trash disposal. Whether SPSA can continue to operate with more than $200 million in debt, whether it should sell all of its assets to a single waste handling company, whether its rates are $120 a ton or even $1,000 — these are all moot questions in the face of a city that effectively has nothing to lose.

Such a situation could tempt city leaders to take the position that Suffolk’s contractual deal with SPSA trumps all issues of regionalism. That’s a dangerous path, however, and the City Council should remember that many of the city’s hopes and dreams rely on good relations with its neighbors. Members also should remember that — failing some buyout of bankruptcy in the meantime — SPSA faces a contractual 2018 sunset date.

Inflexibility by the city about SPSA at this critical juncture could well come back to haunt Suffolk’s leaders in 2019, if not before. Suffolk’s problem with SPSA, then, is finding a way to be gracious to its neighbors in the midst of the agency’s fall. In some ways, it’s an even tougher problem than the rising cost of waste disposal.