Orange commissioners weigh recycling tax district plan

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 16, 2013 

  • How it works

    Orange County’s recycling program serves all three towns and 13,700 rural homes in specific areas.

    For many years, the county has collected curbside recycling from eligible rural homes and accepted recycling at its Eubanks Road facility from private haulers contracted to provide town residents with curbside service. Rural residents living outside areas eligible for curbside pickup take their recycling to the county’s five convenience centers.

    Since 2004, the county has paid for most recycling program costs with a set of 3-R fees – waste reduction, reuse and recycling – and a convenience center fee. All residential households paid the convenience center fee, based on where and in what type of home they live. All developed properties paid the basic 3-R fee, while urban households and rural homes eligible for curbside pickup paid a 3-R fee based on their home type and location.

    However, a decision last year in a Cabarrus County lawsuit cast legal doubt on Orange County’s authority to collect the third fee, called the tiered 3-R fee. The county dropped it but still collects the basic and convenience center fees.

    The county also paid roughly $1.75 million from its reserves to support this year’s recycling program. Officials have until June 30, 2014, to find a way to keep the program going.

    The current fees for all households are:

    • Rural, single-family home, curbside eligible: $47 basic fee, $40 convenience center fee.

    • Rural, single-family home, not curbside eligible: $47 basic fee, $40 convenience center fee.

    • Urban, single-family home: $47 basic fee, $20 convenience center fee.

    • Multifamily homes: $47 basic fee, $4 convenience center fee per dwelling.

    The towns and the county handle trash collection separately. After the Orange County Landfill closed in June, the county and Hillsborough started trucking their trash to a city of Durham waste transfer station. Chapel Hill and Carrboro take their trash to a Waste Industries transfer station in southern Durham.

— County leaders will learn more in January about a solid waste service district that could keep the county’s rural curbside recycling program funded past June 30.

Local officials are responding to a state court ruling by dropping one of three existing solid-waste fees. The two other fees are a flat $47 recycling fee and a tiered convenience center fee.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 Tuesday night to seek a detailed tax district plan to replace the dropped fee. The district would initially cover rural residents now getting curbside recycling and to town residents if the towns opt in.

The county could hold public hearings in the spring “with the intent that we create that solid waste district come July 1, 2014,” the approved motion states.

“Intent doesn’t mean it commits you to have to absolutely do it, but I think if we’re going to do it, we have to have some level of intention, because if we don’t, what are we going to do? What are we going to decide at the last minute if we don’t?” Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough are still deciding whether to go their own way or continue a longtime partnership with the county. The towns have indicated interest in working together. The recycling fee charged to urban residents in the proposed service district would be based on the cost of new roll carts and the service, whether it’s provided by a private contractor or the county.

Rural residents in a tax service district would pay an annual bill based on the value of their property. The cost of serving 13,700 existing rural customers works out to roughly 1.5 cents for every $100 in assessed value, Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said.

A rural property valued at $300,000 would generate a $45 annual recycling bill, though the actual amount could change depending on many factors, including whether the towns participate.

Alternative flat fee

The alternative is a fee-based subscription program that only charges those who use curbside service and lets rural customers opt out. Talbert said the flat fee is still a possibility and could be in place by the June deadline if the commissioners change course in the spring.

He estimated the cost of biweekly collection next year at roughly $630,000. Half of the cost would be paid out of the county’s general fund; rural customers could pay roughly $58 in the first year, he said.

Staff expects up to 20 percent of eligible rural customers to opt out of the subscription program, Talbert said.

The county could spend another $1.3 million under either option to buy two new trucks and 96-gallon roll carts. Residents could keep their smaller bins if that’s all they want, Talbert said.

Resident Donald O’Leary said his home off Orange Grove Road receives curbside recycling services, but he sometimes throws the recycling in with the trash he takes to a convenience center. The county does not provide curbside trash collection for rural residents.

“Personally, I would opt out, and I know my neighbors would opt out, so I think it’s progress that we’re allowing folks to opt out of this,” he said.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin said his vote with the board majority doesn’t mean he definitely supports a service district.

“I would say my intent is to hear more from the public. It’s not a done deal from my perspective,” he said.

Neither option ensures a successful recycling program, said Commissioners Vice Chairman Earl McKee, who cast the dissenting vote. The alternative fee-based service might be a viable “stopgap measure,” he said.

“I’m not hearing anyone in what I consider the rural part of county making any arguments against recycling, either through the convenience centers or those who have recycling services curbside. They’re satisfied with them and they’d like to keep them,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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