Trash fees could start soon

Published 9:41 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free trash removal for Suffolk residents could be breathing its last soon.

Suffolk City Council discussed the possibility of beginning to charge a monthly fee for regular garbage, curbside recycling and bulk waste services as early as July 2010, in the face of a trash authority fraught with problems, buyout offers, debt and demise in 2018, if not sooner.

“I think at some point it’s going to be inevitable,” Suffolk mayor Linda T. Johnson said during a break in the council’s retreat Thursday.

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Council members discussed the possibility of a $14 monthly charge for trash removal, but made no decisions and did not come to a consensus on when the fees should start.

Though Suffolk does not pay to dump its trash at the landfill, council members are concerned they may have to begin paying soon — whether because SPSA is bought out by a private company or because it implodes altogether. If neither happens, SPSA’s contractual sunset date is 2018 and some council members did not envision the authority’s eight member communities cooperating for trash removal again.

“I think (in 2018) it will be all over,” councilman Jeffrey Gardy said.

Other council members imagined SPSA could be split in half, with the western and eastern communities going their separate ways.

“We could partner with the people to the west,” councilman Charles Parr said, apparently referring to Southampton and Isle of Wight counties and the city of Franklin. “The people to the east can’t figure out what time they want to eat lunch together.”

On Wednesday, the SPSA board of directors voted to accept and post a proposal from ReEnergy Holdings, which offers to buy the entire authority for $243 million. The board will receive comments and competitive bids for the next 45 days, after which it could agree to ReEnergy’s proposal, select a competitor, or reject all the proposals.

ReEnergy has said it will charge equal fees to all communities, including Suffolk, to dump trash at the landfill if it purchases the authority. Suffolk would receive a host fee for the landfill, but ReEnergy has not given any indication if that fee would balance out the tipping fee.

In preparation for eventually having to pay for trash removal, council members discussed the institution of an enterprise fund during their retreat. Director of Public Works Eric Nielsen suggested spreading the estimated $5.4 million annual cost for residential, bulk and recycling services among Suffolk’s 32,000 households, equaling a monthly fee of about $14 for each home.

Some council members were concerned about the extra burden on taxpayers. Councilman Charles Brown suggested starting out with a lower fee, and stepping up through the years to reach the $14 fee.

Councilman Robert Barclay IV remained open to beginning the fee next year.

“I’ve gotten e-mails,” he said. “People say they’d rather pay a monthly fee than see these piles of trash.”

Barclay alluded to the piles of bulk waste that have appeared throughout the city since a new fee for their removal began July 1. Nielsen told council members the city has been cracking down on the piles that haven’t been removed.

The new fee requires residents who want bulk trash collected to pay a $20 or $50 fee, depending on the size of the pile, at least two days in advance to have it collected. Those who placed trash at the curb but had not paid received a door hanger reminding them of the new fees, Nielsen said.

However, some people have ignored the hangers and left the trash in its place. The city then sent letters to homes, explaining the new fees.

Those who still hadn’t complied received certified letters last week, giving them 72 hours to remove the trash or face the original $20 charge plus a $70 administrative fee.

“By the time we’ve gone to that level, we’ve spent 70 bucks in staff time,” Nielsen said.

However, Nielsen’s office got about 30 letters back, indicating that people either refused to sign them or were not at home when the delivery came.

For those who get slapped with the fee, Nielsen said, it will be included in their next tax bill.

“We tried to institute a fee for service system,” Barclay said. “For whatever reason, it’s not working.”

Council members made no decisions on the various trash issues at the retreat. Any proposal to begin charging for trash pickup would be made as a part of the regular budget process.