Our Views: Janesville must move cautiously on landfill decision

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

News in The Gazette that Janesville might sell or close its landfill likely shocked many residents.

It shouldn't be a shock, however, that the city council met in closed session in January to discuss these ideas. Disturbing, yes, but not shocking, as we've been down this road of questionable secrecy before.

Many readers can't remember a time when the city wasn't in the landfill business. Other cities and companies have dumped their trash here for years. No, it doesn't make sense to let outsiders fill our landfill too quickly, nor dump toxins that might someday leach into Janesville's groundwater, no matter how carefully workers line holes with clay. Still, a landfill can be a valuable asset. A city with its own landfill doesn't pay another municipality or company for a place to dump its garbage—or for the fuel to haul it elsewhere.

That could be a key concern as the city explores whether to close or sell the landfill, which is running deficits. In the April 23 s Gazette, however, Operations Director John Whitcomb tried to reassure residents.

First, he said he couldn't foresee a day when the city stops curbside trash pickup. Second, he hopes to keep demolition and compost services open to residents. Third, he pointed out that few cities own landfills. He doesn't think residents would see much difference in trash service if the city sold the landfill because the city would try to negotiate reasonable disposal prices with the new owner.

For years, the landfill generated revenue that paid for most or all of the city's curbside trash collection. Whitcomb says that's no longer the case. In 2011, the city started charging each home $56 annually to collect trash. That fee almost doubled this year. To some residents, the fee is as offensive as a ripe bag of garbage in mid-August.

Many outside haulers, however, have stopped coming here, eroding tipping-fee revenue as operating costs rise. In January, the city lost another big customer when a company that owns its own landfill bought out Sherman Sanitation. Whitcomb says that with private companies consolidating and contracts typically covering several years, he's not optimistic about attracting more haulers.

Selling or closing the landfill, he says, would help the city avoid borrowing money to open future cells or close current ones.

Whitcomb says selling rather than closing the landfill is the better idea, and that seems to make sense. Still, officials must assure residents that a long-term deal with a company wouldn't cause the city's trash collection fees to rise.

While closing the landfill might eliminate big future expenses, officials would need to consider costs to cap it and how to pay off debt already incurred. Besides, can the city project how much rising gas prices might push up costs to truck our trash elsewhere?

One more consideration: If the city closes or sells the landfill, what happens to future landfill space created as a sand and gravel company keeps digging nearby?

“Part of our doing this is we don't know what the value is to the private sector,” Whitcomb says of seeking requests to purchase the landfill. “We've never gone down this road. The council wanted to find out.”

That, too, seems to make sense. But rather than burying concerns like so much rubbish, the city must provide reasonable answers to questions. The city should give residents plenty of chances to comment and lean on the side of transparency as it weighs options for this potentially monumental shift in operations.

If residents must pay more for trash collection and the landfill, maybe that's the best option. It's great that the landfill once paid for itself, but no one says it must. It's a city service. Services cost money. If it turns out that paying more and keeping control of our landfill is the best option, so be it.


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