Don’t change the deal now

Published 10:08 pm Thursday, August 27, 2009

It’s easy to understand why Portsmouth and other municipal members of the Southeastern Public Service Authority would want to go back to the negotiating table in reference to the cost of trash disposal for the cities of Suffolk and Virginia Beach.

While the rest of the public waste authority’s eight members face the nightmare of paying the highest rates in the nation to dispose of their trash, Suffolk and Virginia Beach have been protected from the agency’s recent tipping-fee increases by one simple thing — a contract.

When the authority first organized itself to dispose of Hampton Roads’ solid waste, way back in the early-80s, the deals seemed sensible to everyone involved. Suffolk would host Hampton Roads’ landfill and accept its trash in exchange for a free ride with the organization — there would never be any tipping fees for disposing of Suffolk trash. Virginia Beach — whose volume of trash was thought to be needed to make the area-wide partnership viable — was promised a cap on its own tipping fees at the SPSA landfill.

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At the time, nobody imagined the growth that Suffolk would experience in both population and volume of garbage. They didn’t expect the financial mismanagement within the authority, nor the unwillingness of the participating municipalities to charge tipping fees that would make the agency financially viable. They didn’t foresee the great fiscal calamity that would face the organization 30 years later as it faced hundreds of millions of public debt.

Perhaps they should have imagined, or expected or foreseen these things. But they didn’t, and SPSA today is a product of that shortsighted approach.

One thing that was completely clear, though, during the negotiations that marked SPSA’s founding was that Suffolk would be making a sacrifice by agreeing to host the regional landfill. Hundreds of acres immediately were taken off the potential market for development, and even more property suffered from proximity to the landfill. Truck traffic and trash alongside the roads that lead to the landfill are problems that soon became familiar to every Suffolk resident.

In exchange for their sacrifices, Suffolk officials negotiated the ability to dump trash at the landfill free of charge. It was a reasonable trade in 1982, and it continues to be a reasonable trade today. Nothing has changed to reduce the impact of the landfill in Suffolk — in fact, its impact grows in proportion to the growth in the volume of trash taken there. Similarly, nothing should change in the agreement regarding Suffolk’s tipping fees.

Kudos to the SPSA board for coming to the same conclusion.