Gaining respect at SPSA

Published 9:34 pm Thursday, October 29, 2015

One of the first things most folks who know him say about Suffolk’s new city manager is that he’s congenial. Patrick Roberts seems quick with a smile and a supportive comment to just about everybody he meets, and his deliberativeness imbues his character with a disarmingly homespun feel.

But Roberts demonstrated on Wednesday that folks should not take those characteristics as evidence he will be a soft negotiator.

During a meeting of representatives from each of the eight municipalities involved in the Southeastern Public Service Authority, Roberts made it clear that Suffolk will not sign just any deal to keep the regional solid waste authority alive beyond the January 2018 date it was originally set to dissolve.


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SPSA representatives from South Hampton Roads’ six cities, along with Southampton and Isle of Wight counties, were discussing the framework of the agreement that would define the responsibilities of the authority and the expectations of its members if they choose to continue their relationship beyond 2018.

But Roberts correctly noted that it would be imprudent for Suffolk to proceed with those discussions until city officials better understand what the city’s responsibilities and benefits will be as the municipality that hosts the regional landfill.

As part of the founding agreement for SPSA, Suffolk agreed to host the existing regional landfill in exchange for the right to dump its trash there at no charge. Other SPSA members — except for Virginia Beach, which also negotiated a sweetheart deal in exchange for its participation in the regional effort — have paid tipping fees that at one time climbed to among the highest in the nation because of fiscal mismanagement within the authority.

It’s unlikely Suffolk’s deal will be as lopsidedly beneficial to the city this time around. When the municipalities inked the last deal, Suffolk was a sleepy little burg on the outskirts of nowhere, and even the most optimistic growth projections never envisioned the growth the city has seen since then. Now, though, Suffolk is consistently one of the commonwealth’s fastest-growing localities, and its growing garbage production rivals that of Tidewater’s other municipalities.

Today, Suffolk’s trash represents a significant part of the landfill stream. It’s unlikely the other cities and counties involved in SPSA would be willing to participate in SPSA 2.0 if Suffolk were not helping to pay the bills by paying at least a portion of the cost to operate and maintain the landfill.

But there’s a lot of space between “free” and “full-price,” and Roberts and his advisers in the administration are smart to refrain from publicly contemplating the structure and operation of the new SPSA until they understand how the new authority intends to reimburse Suffolk for the expense and inconvenience that results from hosting a landfill that receives many thousands of truckloads of trash a year.

A poor deal on the latter issue would have serious repercussions for the city’s ability to give much ground on issues of importance to the other potential SPSA members. A good deal on the hosting matter could give Suffolk latitude for a more generous approach to the other issues on the table.

Considering Roberts’ benign reputation, officials from the other municipalities involved in Wednesday’s meetings might have been surprised at the new city manager’s decisive negotiating style, but it’s a safe bet they won’t be taken off guard again.