St. Mary's Trash Heads for Virginia
By Jessie Mangaliman
You won't hear politicians talking trash too often in St. Mary's County during an election year.
But George A. Erichsen, the county's public works director and a nonpolitician, can't help it. He's talking plenty of trash these days because later this year, the county's only landfill will close.
St. Andrews Landfill, off Route 4 south of Route 235, is full.
St. Mary's County will join much of the rest of the country in a trend driven by the changed economics and politics of trash: It is cheaper for local governments to export their trash to huge, private landfills than to operate their own dumps. After late summer or early fall, all trash collected in St. Mary's will be sent to a transfer station in Calvert County, where it will be off-loaded and quickly reloaded for final burial in a mega-landfill in Virginia.
From his office window on St. Andrews Church Road, Erichsen can see the trucks coming and going at the county landfill, a constant reminder that soon St. Mary's County will no longer be in the business of operating a landfill, a business that has collected $1.5 million a year in "tipping fees" from commercial trash haulers. The county plans to keep open six "convenience centers" where residents can bring their bags of trash free and have it hauled away by the county.
The anticipated loss of the landfill revenue has forced officials to make some careful calculations. Under current budget proposals, the county will have to spend $350,000 to keep the drop-off centers running and an additional $464,000 in fees to Calvert County to have the trash hauled, said county Finance Director Steve Welkos.
The county commissioners are currently proposing to make up for part of the revenue loss in the new fiscal year by raising property taxes an average of $17 dollars a household -- or keeping the constant yield property tax rate set by the state the same as it was last year, $2.08 for every $100 of assessed valuation, instead of the $2.05 rate it would be this year to generate the same revenue.
"We're basically spreading the cost over all county taxpayers instead of charging just the convenience center users," Welkos said.
"This is the issue. Everybody is paying for disposal of solid waste," he said.
In February, the commissioners proposed a user fee -- $95 a year, or $85 for reduced operating hours -- at the convenience centers. The proposal met with protests from residents long used to dumping garbage free.
"If you do this, people are going to be mad about it and there will be illegal dumping; people will burn trash from barrels," said Larry Pinto, president of the Community Preservation Coalition of St. Mary's, a nonprofit citizens environmental and preservation group that lobbied against the fees.
The coalition suggested a gradual phasing in of the cost of operating the convenience centers and hauling the trash to Calvert County. St. Mary's County has an approved state permit to expand the current landfill, so if the politics and economics of municipal solid waste ever change, the county could build a new landfill, Erichsen said.
For now, however, some of St. Mary's trash is already trucked out of state.
"I can't go anywhere without talking trash," said Bill Mattingly, general manager of St. Mary's Disposal, the county's largest private garbage hauler. When the landfill was closed to commercial haulers in March, Mattingly was forced to go to Calvert County.
In St. Mary's, he paid the county $35 a ton in tipping fees. Now his trucks are driving about 16 miles farther, across the river, and paying $39 a ton. "It's inconvenient and it's costing me more," said Mattingly, a member of the county's Solid Waste Advisory Committee. He said his business has decided not to pass on the increased cost to customers.
"Trash is a very emotional issue with people," said Board of Commissioners President Barbara R. Thompson (R-At Large).
"There's always been a loud opposition in St. Mary's County [to user fees], and the majority of the board does not want to incur that kind of opposition this year," Thompson said.
Although the commissioners have recommended subsidizing the convenience centers, Thompson said, the idea of a user fee is not dead.
"It's not an easy issue," said Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe (R-District 3).
"A lot of folks don't understand the economics of it, but they do know there's a free convenience center," Jarboe said.
For example, the commissioners know it would cost about $12 million to open a new landfill, an additional $7 million to cap it when it's full, plus $7 million more to cap the St. Andrews landfill.
"It doesn't make economic sense for us to open a new landfill because there are places that want our trash cheaper than we can operate a landfill," Jarboe said.
Thompson, who is seeking reelection, and Jarboe, who has not yet announced his intentions, as well as the other commissioners have already gotten an inkling of the political power of garbage.
During recent budget hearings, the commissioners were assailed by Michael L. Hewitt, president of the county's school board, for their position to use tax increase revenue to keep the convenience centers open.
"I pointed out that it was unusual we could raise the taxes to take care of the trash but not fully fund the school budget," Hewitt said. "We've known for several years that the landfill was going to be closed. We could have done some better planning."
For Erichsen, the future of trash in St. Mary's County is beyond the horizon he sees from his office window, past this year's election.
"We are now prepared to do our solid waste plan update that's required by the state," said Erichsen, who has proposed hiring a consultant to study the options. "The demographics in St. Mary's County have changed, and it's time to look at a different [long-term] plan."
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