Janesville20°

City exploring options for garbage collection and its costs

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
May 24, 2010
— The garbage issue in Janesville can be boiled down to three questions:

-- "Who's going to pay?"


-- "How much are they going to pay?"


-- "How will they pay?"


Sounds easy enough.


But the landfill's finances impact all parts of the city budget. Changing one of numerous variables impacts tax bills.


Janesville City Council members at a Tuesday study session will be asked to set the landfill's future direction, including whether the city should:


-- Continue to court outside garbage.


-- Reduce garbage collection services.


-- Impose a user fee.


-- Raise landfill fees.


The session will be televised live beginning at 6:30 p.m. on JATV on cable channel 98 and digital channel 994.


What has changed to spur the hard look at finances?


Janesville residents historically have enjoyed low garbage disposal costs. The money generated by landfill fees pays to:


-- Dispose the garbage.


-- Build new landfills.


-- Collect the garbage.


-- Recycle.


Since 2007, the landfill has made enough extra to put money back into the city budget. In 2009, for example, it subsidized the general fund as much as $450,000.


But trash tonnage recently dropped and so have revenues. By 2012, city officials believe the landfill will continue to support itself but not make enough money to subsidize other city services.


Without the subsidy from the landfill, the city budget would have a financial hole that would result in a 4.4 percent increase in property taxes in 2011.


The council could choose a variety of options to minimize that increase. Options include reducing collection services or charging residents user fees.


Landfill history

The city in 1972 paid $1.73 million to purchase 640 acres from Janesville Sand & Gravel. A contract allows the company the mineral rights and details a sequencing plan for mining operations so the city is assured of landfill space. The company also agrees not to dig below groundwater.


Because the company digs the hole, site preparation is minimal. It provides free clay for construction and closure. Transportation costs are low because the landfill is in the city.


Fees are collected from private and municipal waste haulers and people hauling their own waste. Janesville residents can carry in 60 gallons of waste at no charge. Non-city residents must pay, although some residents say employees often do not check IDs.


Since at least the mid-1980s, the city has accepted trash from other communities in Rock County.


In about 1999, Beloit stopped using the landfill. Janesville then contracted with Green County to replace that tonnage and more. The council at the time changed ordinances to lower what had been a high fee for waste coming in from outside the county.


"The direction was to go out and find more waste," John Whitcomb, operations director, said.


When the state imposed levy limits several years later, the council used profits from the landfill to maintain city services. This year, $450,000 was shifted to the general fund to help maintain current services.


A changing marketplace and the recession have hurt the landfill's profits.


Larger waste haulers, most of whom have their own landfills, are driving smaller haulers out of business.


The recession hit and consumer consumption—and resulting trash—dropped. The landfill lost 25 percent of its waste stream in 2009.


Most fixed costs to operate the landfill, meanwhile, remain the same, regardless of the tonnage.


Council options

The following options assume the landfill's current garbage customers remain through 2013, that the landfill fee is increased 3 percent in 2011 and that the city general fund relies less on income from the landfill.


The council could choose one alternative or a mix of alternatives:


-- Reduce or end residential trash collection. Collecting trash every other week would save $305,000. Requiring residents to set garbage on the same side of the street would save $239,000. Eliminating trash collection altogether would save more than $1 million annually. Each person would have to contract with a private waste hauler or haul garbage to the landfill themselves.


-- Charge residents user fees to cover the cost of trash collection. Recycling would still be paid for with landfill revenues. The cost to each customer would be $47 a year.


-- Increase property taxes. The owner of the average assessed home of $113,800 would pay an extra $35.75 in 2011, or a 4.4. percent increase. The increase would eat up 73 percent of the city's estimated available levy limit.


-- Charge a user fee, either a flat fee or one based on volume. A volume-based system could include tags for bags.


-- Raise tipping fees at the landfill. Some say keeping the gate rate low encourages more waste and less recycling. Whitcomb said the fee pays the cost of building, operating and closing the landfill. Increasing the fee could mean a loss of garbage.


The gate rate is $28.90 per ton, $13 of which is state fees, taxes and a surcharge.


The five haulers with contracts to dump at the landfill have negotiated different rates, and those vary from $27.50 to $28.10 per ton, Whitcomb said.


Even though the gate rate historically has been one of the lowest in the state, the city loses contracts to other landfills that undercut Janesville's bids, Whitcomb said.


"I don't know why that's a bad thing, to have low-cost disposal," he said.


The council also could maintain the status quo and increase the volume of out-of-county garbage to boost revenue.


That is a policy question, Whitcomb said.


"Long range, do we take in more garbage and shorten the life of our landfill?" he said.


Whitcomb believes staff could continue to find garbage and bring in more revenue, but that is not a certainty.


Boosting volume would decrease the landfill's life by one to three years from current projections, reaching capacity around 2016 or 2017.


Estimated costs to build, close and monitor the current landfill for 40 years is about $20 million. That does not include operations.


Some sound the warning that more garbage increases the risk of groundwater contamination. Whitcomb believes that is a moot point.


"We already own a landfill in town," he said. "Those environmental concerns are there no matter how much trash is taken in. This community has been willing to bear that risk since the '50s."



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