Orange County to revamp recycling program

Mar. 18, 2013 @ 08:24 AM

Orange County’s successful recycling program will be undergoing changes in the next year or two, and some people are worried a new program will completely undo all the successes the county made in building its recycling program over the years.

Orange County ranks first in the state for waste reduction by reducing its solid waste by 59 percent. In contrast, Wake County has reduced its waste by 25 percent; Durham County by 21 percent; Chatham County by 37 percent; and Alamance County by 26 percent.

The reduction in Orange was due to its recycling services, its recycling policies and its education program.

The problem, however, may be that Orange County has been charging its residents a recycling fee that had not been approved by the N.C. General Assembly.

Cabarrus County had a case heard by the North Carolina Court of Appeals that involved the statutory authority to levy fees, and upon reading the opinion on that case, the Orange County Attorney said he believed that the ruling could affect Orange County and its ability to continue charging the recycling fee, said Orange County Assistant Manager Michael Talbert.

So Orange County must come up with a new way to handle and finance its recycling program, Talbert said.

The problem started around 2004 when Orange County’s residents were so successful in diverting items from the Orange County Landfill that Orange County lost some of the revenue that it was generating from tipping fees at the landfill. Also, the recycling program was not supporting itself from the revenue that was generated from selling the recycled items.

So the decision was made to adopt a “Reduce, Reuse and Recycling Fee” known as the 3-R Fee, which is billed on the property tax bill for all improved properties in Orange County. In addition, the county charged an additional fee to about 13,730 homes, mostly located in developments just outside the city limits of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, that received curbside recycling service.

Because of the court decision, the Orange County Board of Commissioners have started to look at alternatives, and the first one on the table from the county manager is to privatize curbside solid waste and recycling services in the unincorporated areas of the county by moving to a county-wide franchise agreement, in which the county would contract with a single hauler or possible several haulers to provide the service.

At a recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, County Manager Frank Clifton said the franchise option is one of the options for changing the county’s recycling system.

If the county does decide to move toward franchising, state law requires the county follow certain regulations and a timeline that would require the county to inform private haulers notice of the impending changes more than a year in advance.

Not everyone liked the idea of privatizing the service with one hauler.

Bonnie Hauser of Orange County Voice, which says it speaks for rural residents, said the organization supports privatizing curbside services where households can opt out, but it opposes franchising, which would put smaller independent operators out of business, and force people to use just one service.

Jessica Bollinger, who owns Efland Trash Service, which provides back door trash services to residents in the Efland area, including a number of senior citizens, said she worries her business will be displaced if the county goes with a single franchise.

Jan Sassaman, chair of the Orange County Solid Waste Advisory Board, said he was speaking not as a member of the board but as a resident of the county. He urged the county commissioners to take their time and explore what other counties have done to solve similar problems.

Going to a subscription based program would not be the right move if the county wants to keep building its recycling program, he said.

“It would create a disincentive for recycling in as much that citizens would be asked to pay more for services,” he said.

Sassaman also suggested that a franchise system would likely send jobs and tax dollars out of the county and goes contrary to the county’s culture of sustainability.

Jim Ward, also a member of the Solid Waste Advisory Board, said he is concerned that the county will end up with dual systems: one that is franchised and a second that is not.

“I fear that our premier recycling program will cease to exist as it becomes a second-tier effort,” he said.

When the county commissioners began a short discussion on the issue, they, too, seemed a bit confused, wondering if they were being forced onto a track that would end with only the franchise option at the end of it.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Commissioner Renee Price. “I feel uneasy moving forward with just one option, that franchise agreement. I just feel uneasy with it and I think we need to explore other alternatives.”

Clifton explained that the commissioners don’t have to go with the franchise option but if they do decide to go that route, a process and a schedule needs to be started now because it’s a long process.

Clifton also said there were financial implications of waiting too long because the county may have to decide whether it is going to buy or replace its equipment.

The commissioners decided they wanted more time to hear about other options and costs before it holds a public hearing on the franchise option on April 23. They voted unanimously to put the issue on their April 9 agenda for further discussion.

Talbert declined to discuss the other options, saying the staff was still working on them and he wanted the commissioners to hear about them first.