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Without proposed solid waste fee changes, tax payers will be footing the bill for commercial businesses

The Macon County Board of Commissioners have called a special meeting for Monday at 9 a.m. to get clarification regarding the solid waste fees that have been debated in the FY 24 budget. 

The Department operates as an Enterprise Fund and does not rely on ad valorem tax revenues for Operating or Capital expenditures. In essence, the Department operates like a business within the County and must generate its own revenue. The two primary funding sources are user (tipping) fees and Availability Fees.  Availability Fees are sent out to all owners of improved properties with the property tax bills, but unlike property or fire taxes, availability fees are a uniform fee – everybody pays the same fee.  These fees cover many costs related to operations and services provided other than the landfill.  These include the Transfer Station, Recycling, Convenience Centers, and covering the tipping fee for all of the household waste that is taken in at no charge. 

Macon County Solid Waste Director Chris Stahl’s budget request included two fee changes and a third to amend an existing fee to include brush. The fee changes would not impact the majority of Macon County residents, and rather would only apply to a small subsection of customers such as commercial businesses using the Highlands Transfer Station, many of whom are not owned by Macon County residents. 

The Department consists of sixteen operating centers with 21 full-time and approximately 40-45 part-time employees. The primary goal of the Department is to utilize best management practices to protect human health and the environment in an efficient and economical manner. 

In 2022, Macon County remained in the top-ten for all Counties in the State in pounds per capita recycled; marking the twentieth straight year the organization was able to celebrate this success. The support facilities such as the eleven Convenience Centers, Transfer Station and Materials Recovery Facility create a network throughout the County to facilitate processing and/or disposal of wastes and recyclables for every citizen of Macon County.

While the Solid Waste Department’s operating budget is increased by only 0.3% (approximately $21,000.00), and keeps the costs tied to the two main revenue sources level with the current budget year, the request for some minor adjustments to two of our fees were needed this year. 

Macon County Commissioner John Shearl made a motion during last week’s continued session of the board asking for the fee changes to be removed from the budget and not adopted. Commissioner Shearl stated that Highlands residents already pay enough taxes and they should no the subjected to additional fees. Commissioner Shearl’s budget motion failed due to lack of majority support for the board. However, when Commissioner Josh Young made his budget motion, which went on to pass by a margin of 4-1 with Shearl casting the lone dissenting vote, county staff were unclear if the final budget proposal addressed the solid waste fee changes or not, thus the need for a special called meeting on Monday morning. 

The first fee request is for the Transfer Station in Highlands, the county charges a transfer fee on top of the tipping fee for commercial customers. This is a pass-through fee based on the county’s costs to move that waste from the Transfer Station to the Landfill.  Last year, the Board approved an increase from $175.00 per pull, to $250.00 per pull. The county is allowed to haul 20-tons in a trailer per DOT limits. So, $175.00/20= $8.75 per ton (current fee). The requested change would be $250.00 (board approved increase)/20 = $12.50/ton (requested fee). The theory behind this is that the county doesn’t supplement commercial customers hauling costs when they deliver waste to the landfill, it’s ultimate destination. Therefore, the county should not supplement businesses’ hauling costs that deliver waste to the transfer station. If it costs the county $12.50 per ton to finish carrying their wastes to the landfill, they should pay for their portion of that load.  

The change would only apply to commercial customers as household customers are still allowed to dump for free, just like at any convenience center. Residents with bulky waste that are charged a tipping fee, do not have the transfer fee applied.

The requested fee change would mean an additional revenue generated of $41,250 based on the previous 12 months. Without this fee increase for commercial businesses utilizing the Highlands transfer station, residential customers across the county will have to pay more to make up for the cost. 

The second fee request was to raise the fee for brush/stumps or wood waste from $30.00 per ton to $35.00 per ton. This would be applicable to anyone delivering vegetative wastes to the landfill or the Highlands Transfer Station. According to Stahl, the county was paying $8.00 per ton to have woody waste ground when the current fee was set, but the cost to do the same function has now increased to $22.00 per ton for grinding and the fee increase was needed to help close the shortfall between tipping fees received and the cost of managing these operations, which involves more than just the grinding costs. The transportation costs are $22.00 per ton. Adding the Transfer Fee would help fund this additional cost.

When there was a landfill in Highlands, the ground mulch from the wood waste was utilized on site. Now, however, it must be transported away from the site to either the MSW Landfill Facility, or an alternate end user. 

Stahl noted that the and his staff are actively seeking to formalize alternate approved methods of use for the mulch as a commodity. He assured commissioners that should those efforts bear out, the Transfer Fee will be removed, thus making it temporary. This change would generate an addition $21,500 in revenue. 

The third change would also only apply at the Highlands Transfer Station and is not a new fee, but a correction to an oversight made during last budget process. The request would apply the transfer fee (old or new) to brush and stumps because that material also has to be hauled away from the site. It is actually more expensive to haul than the trash, but the goal of the fee is to at least help close the gap between tipping fees and total cost so that the generator of the waste is contributing more to use the service rather than everyone in the county paying more to have this service available.

When the current fee was set, grinding costs were $8.00 per ton. Currently, grinding costs are at least $22.00 per ton. According to Stahl, it takes many man-hours and equipment hours to maintain the wood waste areas. The piles must be monitored for unacceptable debris, which must be removed. The waste pile has to be pushed into windrows for fire protection and to maintain an adequate dumping area. This process is then repeated on the ground mulch, which requires even more frequent manipulation to prevent spontaneous combustion. This fee correction would generate an additional $20,000 in revenue. 

All of these fee changes are user based – only charged to customers bringing in the material for disposal and addresses the goal of reducing the portion of costs paid by everyone so that the county can provide these services. The Solid Waste Department’s largest customer that would be most impacted by the adjustment would be the town of Highlands followed by businesses in the building and construction industry. 

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