This trash is complicated.
A draft local law written by the Development Authority of the North Country to capitalize on the common interests of its three charter counties is reawakening a politically charged debate for some Jefferson County officials, illustrating the complex economics of solid-waste disposal.
The 12-page proposal, submitted to Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence county legislators for review, aims to comply with tightening state regulations by reducing the per-capita disposal rate through waste diversion and recycling. It depends on the cooperation of all three counties.
“All partners benefit from revenues generated by the disposal by the authority,” said Richard R. LeClerc, Solid Waste Division manager for the authority.
And that could mean “flow control” — restricting the flow of waste generated within a county to that county’s designated waste-disposal facility.
It’s a controversial measure that Jefferson County Legislators Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, and Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, strongly oppose.
“For me it’s a philosophical question,” said Mr. Reed, chairman of the Board of Legislators’ General Services Committee. “The DANC landfill is well run, complies with all the laws and provides a great service, but I fundamentally do not favor flow control as a blanket option. There are instances when you restrict competition and the free market and it increases cost to the consumer and that can be a great amount of money. Waste haulers don’t eat that cost; it gets passed on to the taxpayer. There are a lot of facets to flow control to consider. It can stifle competition and innovation.”
“Without flow control it keeps everybody cognizant of how to run their operations to the best of their abilities,” he said.
“The problem with flow control is that there’s not competition and you can charge whatever you want because there’s no other option,” said Mr. Behling. “If it does come up, I’m going to vote no on it. I think DANC does a fantastic job up there but I think we should keep it the way it is — keep it competitive.”
HIGH COURT HAS SPOKEN
Flow control has already been the subject of two U.S. Supreme Court cases.
In C & A Carbone, Inc. v. Clarkstown, 1994, the court struck down a flow-control ordinance under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution because the law favored a private waste-rocessing facility.
In United Haulers Association Inc., et al., Petitioners v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority et al., 2007, the court upheld a flow control ordinance because waste was being delivered to facilities owned and operated by a “state-created public benefit corporation.” DANC is such an entity.
DANC is seeking to take advantage of the precedent set by that second decision to ensure the longevity of Rodman landfill, created by a 1986 inter-municipal agreement among the three counties.
Revenues at the DANC-managed landfill in Rodman are generated primarily by user fees based on quantity of waste delivered.
St. Lawrence and Lewis counties have both implemented flow control. Jefferson County has not.
If all three counties were to adopt flow-control measures, it would mean a secure revenue stream for the landfill.
Some legislators are in favor of the measure.
“In theory you could say flow control is working against the free-market system, but I can also see the counter-debate, which is that by implementing flow control you can control the cost of the landfill for the consumer while taking care of our backyard, which is our responsibility,” said county legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, chairman of the Finance and Rules Committee.
“If it’s mismanaged, the Legislature has the ability to take that flow control away,” Mr. Gray said. “I can see both sides; I can understand both sides. I tend to fall on the side that I’m OK with flow control.”
LESS TRASH HIKES PRICES
Mr. LeClerc pointed to a recent demolition project on Fort Drum where debris was trucked out of the county as an example of a possible drawback from not implementing flow control. The authority was not able to charge or receive tipping fees on those loads to support operating costs at the landfill.
The tipping fee at the landfill was raised $5 on Jan. 1 for the first time in the life of the facility, according to Mr. LeClerc.
“Fees have either decreased or held steady since 1992,” he said. But recently, “the revenues being generated were not sufficient at the rate being charged.”
Jefferson County Highway Supervisor James L. Lawrence runs the county transfer station, where smaller hauling companies and private individuals can drop off trash to be trucked to the Rodman facility by the county.
Speaking of the demolition debris, Mr. Lawrence said, “If that was coming here, maybe they wouldn’t have had to raise that $5 a ton.”
The tipping fee per ton is $44 at the DANC facility. By comparison, the tipping fee at the Oneida-Herkimer facility in Ava is $70 per ton,
The town of Rodman receives a per-ton community benefit payment from the landfill. During its last two budget cycles, the Town Council has had to contend with a decrease in this revenue because increased recycling volume in the county has reduced the amount of tonnage entering the DANC facility.
According to Mr. LeClerc, even though the single line-item amount for a given year may decrease for the town, the reductions in waste disposal volume year by year indicates a positive trend because it means that the revenue stream will continue longer.
The landfill is designed to hold a certain amount of tonnage, so the town will still see the same amount of overall revenue. The reduction due to waste diversion simply “changes the timeline,” Mr. LeClerc said.
Some haulers can still elect to take their trash to an outside area where a private landfill might charge a discounted rate. The nearest private landfill for Jefferson County is Seneca Meadows in Seneca Falls, more than 100 miles from Watertown. Information about tipping fees at the Seneca Meadows facility was not available as of Tuesday night.
Depending on how the numbers work out, sometimes it can be worth the transportation costs, according to Mr. Lawrence.
Keeping tipping fees uniform can be the key to encouraging recycling, according to Jan M. Oatman, regional recycling coordinator for DANC.
“In the areas where the tip fee is artificially low there’s no financial incentive to recycle,” Ms. Oatman said.
According to Ms. Oatman, it is to the counties’ advantage to act in concert.
“We can all work together on this to achieve the goals DEC has set out: less waste going to the landfill,” she said.
The draft will go through one of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators’ committees, where it will be reviewed and adapted to the county’s individual needs, according to Jefferson County Deputy Administrator Michael E. Kaskan.
Despite flow control’s contentious history and Mr. Behling and Mr. Reed’s strident philosophical objections, officials aren’t anticipating a protracted battle over the measure, especially since DANC has given each individual county a high degree of autonomy in structuring its own version of the law.
“It won’t be the emotional kind of debate it was in the early 1990s, but it will be a hearty discussion,” said County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.
And even if Jefferson County decides not to implement flow control, it may not have much of an effect from a practical standpoint.
“The landfill seems to be the economically sensible place for waste haulers to take their solid waste and it doesn’t appear that we’re losing waste due to not having flow control,” said Mr. Kaskan.
“The trash business is also about transportation,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s very advantageous to dump at Rodman. They’ve gone to great lengths to be a consumer friendly facility. They move trucks in and out efficiently; there’s a lot of tools in place to make haulers want to go there. With competitive tipping fees and a business type structure they capture virtually all the market.”