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St. Lawrence County ready to trash talk

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County is preparing for a broad discussion on how to lower Solid Waste Department tipping fees or at least stabilize them before municipalities take on more trash responsibilities, rendering the county operation uncompetitive.

“It looks like we’re at a point where that has to be addressed,” Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

Earlier this year, the village of Massena approved a refuse rate hike of $1.50, increasing its monthly charge to $22.75 per month. The increase will help build up capital so the village can create its own system for taking waste to the regional landfill operated by the Development Authority of the North Country in the town of Rodman rather than use the county’s transfer site in Massena.

Savings could amount to $100,000 annually, Massena Department of Public Works Superintendent Hassan A. Fayad said.

“Economically, that would be the best thing for the village of Massena to do. Under no circumstance is it what we want to do,” he said. “My preference is to have the protocol be the same.”

The village’s waste accounts for 16 percent of the trash that flows through the county transfer sites that is hauled to Rodman. If Massena opened up its prospective transfer site to others who now use the county’s disposal operation, the percentage lost could rise to about 50 percent of the county’s total.

“They would be able to beat our price by $30 to $40 per ton,” said Scott A. Thornhill, county recycling coordinator.

The village of Potsdam also provides trash pickup through a contract with Casella Waste Services. Heuvelton provides municipal service and the village of Morristown is considering it.

The county’s tipping fee for non-commercial haulers is $160 per ton. Hauling rates start at $131 per ton. The village of Massena pays $122 per ton as a large user. The tipping fee at Rodman is $44 per ton.

The trend has been for tipping rates to climb about $5 per ton annually.

“If we keep raising our tip fees, we’re going to keep losing people,” said Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, chairman of the county’s Solid Waste Committee.

Solid Waste is run as an enterprise fund, meaning that users — not taxpayers — pay most of its costs. Part of the reason fees keep rising is because of “other post-employment benefits,” an accounting category meant to cover such things as long-term health care costs. It’s a mechanism under which money is collected upfront for future liabilities, but it would really only come into play if there was a dissolution of the department.

The amount set by the state is based on a percentage of employees in the county’s total workforce, even though only a dozen or so are part of the enterprise fund. The benefit category has driven costs upwards by about $25,000 annually since a government agency recommended its inclusion in 2009.

Eliminating OPEB costs could allow for an immediate drop in tipping fees of at least $10 per ton but it would mean the enterprise fund would run a perennial deficit. If the county decided to sell Solid Waste’s assets — as it has considered in the past — a prospective buyer might look askance at the books.

“It’s going to look bad,” Treasurer Kevin M. Felt said. “It’s on paper but you’re in the red.”

It also is not clear what the state’s position would be on the negative accounting tactic, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The county could turn Solid Waste from an enterprise fund to a county department, but that would likely raise county costs.

Another continual cost to Solid Waste is the maintenance of landfills closed in Canton, Massena, and Ogdensburg. They were costs the county took over when the Solid Waste Disposal Authority was abolished in the 1990s.

That expense could be siphoned off to the county rather than paid through the enterprise fund but that could raise the tax levy by 1 percent at a time when the county has pledged to reduce property taxes in the first year of a five-year plan and keep future increases to no more than 2 percent.

“No one’s going to be too eager to increase the levy,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “Something else would have to go.”

The financial dilemma also comes at a time when the transfer stations need upgrading.

“One of the other things that has to be considered is equipment,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

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