Maybe not so paranoid, after all

Published 6:45 pm Monday, September 5, 2011

The most conspicuous portion of the new solid waste program in Suffolk gets under way today, as recycling trucks from TFC Recycling begin making their way around the city to collect recyclables from the new, blue rolling cans that have been left for homeowners all over Suffolk.

Whether you’re in the northern part of the city or down near North Carolina, downtown or uptown, whether you’re green or not, if you own residential real estate in the city of Suffolk, you will receive one of these big blue bins. The choice to use them or not is up to you, but you’ll be charged twice a year on your tax bills, at a rate of $17.50 a month, whether you fill the bins with recyclables or not.

Of course, the city has made an effort to remind citizens that the $17.50 pays for much more than just recycling. TFC will receive $4 per month per address for providing its service, meaning that the folks around Suffolk who had participated in the voluntary recycling program at a cost of $12 per month would now be getting a bargain if the program had been limited to recycling.

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But the City Council chose to make a huge change to the way that it pays for solid waste disposal at the same time it instituted the mandatory recycling fee, guaranteeing that there would be confusion among citizens about the programs and their costs.

As Councilman Mike Duman explained it in a recent blog entry, of the approximately $6.7 million that will be raised by the new $17.50-a-month fee, only about $1.5 million will go towards the cost of recycling. The rest will cover various expenses related to getting Suffolk’s garbage to the landfill, taking care of its hazardous waste and preparing the city for the eventual demise of the Southeastern Public Service Authority, along with the expected extra solid waste disposal costs that will follow. In other words, about $5.2 million of the new fees will be used for expenses that had until this year been covered under the city’s general fund.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting solid waste costs to be carried under their own account. But it feels just a little too convenient for the change to have been integrated with the expansion of curbside recycling, which city officials had reason to expect would attract the most attention, thereby distracting them from the fact that an entirely new fee structure had been created.

Even more disturbing is the fact that city officials created this new fee structure without an offsetting decrease in the real estate or other taxes that provide money for the general fund. There was no suggestion that, since the general fund would no longer be used to pay for solid waste expenses, which henceforth will be paid through the new monthly fees, taxes should be cut by the $5.2 million that will be raised under the new fee structure.

Distrust of government is rampant and growing at all levels of society and for all levels of government. In handling the new solid waste disposal fees the way they did, Suffolk officials and City Council members gave their citizens distressing justification for what otherwise might have been written off as mere paranoia. Perhaps it really is too much to expect that even the local government of a moderately-sized Virginia city can be frugal and responsible with taxpayers’ money.