Are fees really necessary?

Published 12:09 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

Less than a month after implicitly admitting that City Council probably had made a mistake when it set up the new fees for bulk waste disposal earlier this year, members of that body are now engaged again in discussions about a questionable trash-fee proposal that is sure to be the object of citizens’ ire if it comes into being.

Things are changing in the world of Hampton Roads’ waste management, and Suffolk City Council says it wants to stay ahead of the curve. For 30 years, the city has paid no tipping fees for depositing its waste at the Southeastern Public Service Authority’s regional landfill in Suffolk. The city’s solid waste disposal expenses have been confined to the cost of picking up trash and delivering it to the landfill, saving city residents the nightmare of watching their trash-disposal bills rise as SPSA has increased its tipping fees to the highest level in the nation in an effort to repay more than $200 million in debt it has incurred.

The only thing that has ever been very clear about SPSA’s future — and, by extension, the future of solid-waste disposal for Suffolk citizens — has been that the agreement that bound the participating Hampton Roads localities expires in 2018, and there isn’t a lot of interest among them in signing a new one. Therefore Suffolk’s leaders need to be thinking now about how and where they will dispose of the city’s trash, and how they will pay for the service.

A proposal by New-York-based ReEnergy Holdings LLC to buy all of the authority’s assets only adds to the confusion, as the company’s cash bid would pay off the existing debt, but the offer would require SPSA municipalities to agree to dispose of their trash at the ReEnergy landfill for the next 20 years. All communities, including Suffolk, would pay a per-ton fee for the privilege, and Suffolk would be paid an undetermined host fee for the landfill being located within the city. The proposal leaves many questions unanswered and is anything but a clear hit with SPSA’s board of directors, which also is considering a smaller deal with a separate company interested in buying only the waste-to-energy plant that SPSA owns in Portsmouth.

With all of this confusion, it seems a bit premature for Suffolk officials to be suggesting that residents should get ready to pay for their garbage collection through a new $14 fee. During a discussion at the City Council retreat this week, members pointed at the questionable deal with ReEnergy as a motivating force behind the proposal, and they said that something would have to happen by 2018, anyway.

Taxpayers already pay for trash pickup through real estate taxes, and the proposed fee apparently doesn’t cover the costs of actually disposing of trash at the landfill. Suffolk residents are right to wonder, then, what was the basis of the $14-per-month proposed fee and whether the proposed ReEnergy tipping fees would add a further cost.

An even greater mystery is why the council would suggest collecting a trash fee even if SPSA continues unchanged. With nine more years of cost-free landfill disposal, collecting a trash fee from citizens without a concurrent real estate rate cut would be a back-door tax increase. If council is just looking for more money to pad the city’s coffers, it should be a little more upfront about things and not hide behind the already-battered SPSA.