Commentary

Bonnie Hauser: Give rural residents a recycling choice

January 24, 2014 

Citizen input is vitally needed on the county’s latest plan to tax rural residents for curbside recycling services. On Thursday, Jan. 23, the commissioners will decide whether or not to pursue a new service tax district to fund rural curbside recycling.

Last year, the county eliminated its curbside recycling fee because they are not authorized to mandate it. The towns now control the fee for town residents. For the rural community, commissioners are exploring a “service district tax” – a standalone, ad valorem tax levied on rural properties. The commissioners prefer this option over a simple “subscription fee”, i.e., a voluntary fee of $58 a year with a provision to “opt out.” Leaders from 25 community and civic groups throughout rural Orange, including Orange County Voice, have endorsed the subscription fee.

The service district tax rate is likely to start at 1.5 cents per $100 valuation. That’s $45 for a $300,000 property. The tax is in addition to convenience center and recycling fees – now set at $87 per year. The fees don’t cover the county’s costs, so a portion of your property taxes is added to the mix.

What’s troubling is the commissioners’ rush to levy a new tax for services that most rural families don’t want or need. Today about 8,500 families use rural curbside recycling. That’s 40 percent of 21,000 households in the unincorporated parts of the county. The county estimates that 20 percent would opt out of a subscription program.

Curbside services are popular in neighborhoods with paved roads and short driveways like the Reserve, Churton Grove or the Trails. These communities use private trash haulers and benefit from the county’s rural curbside recycling. Families in remote areas prefer small, local companies like Efland or Bigelow Trash Services who pick up trash and recycling at your door – and create jobs in our community. According to the county’s solid waste plan, less than 25 percent of county residents use private haulers for trash.

This has little to do with recycling. Based on Orange County Voice’s survey of nearly 1,000 rural households, over 85 percent recycle – and most of them prefer to use convenience centers. Since most households already use the centers for trash, they bring their recyclables at the same time. The county is spending millions of dollars to “modernize” these facilities, and recently started charging to use them. Rural household fees are double those of town neighbors, presumably because the county knows that the centers are a better fit for rural households. If a household wants curbside services too, they should be allowed to opt in for a fee.

The commissioners have signaled they are ready to offer concessions – but no one knows what that means. It’s likely that negotiations will challenge overhead expenses and convenience center fees. Realistically – the commissioners should expect most of the county’s $13 million solid waste operation to be placed under scrutiny.

So why are the commissioners dickering around with a standalone tax for the $500,000 rural curbside recycling program? For now, a simple voluntary fee would suffice – at least until leaders sort out the big picture for all the county’s solid waste services, costs and funding.

So what’s next? On Thursday, the commissioners will decide whether to continue to “explore” a service district tax for rural curbside recycling, or alternatively to pursue a simple subscription fee.

Please write to the commissioners ( bit.ly/1dZgnki) and ask them to pursue the subscription fee for rural curbside recycling for the short term. Ask them to defer action on a confusing new tax, and instead start working with town leaders and rural communities to create forward-looking trash and recycling services that are funded openly and equitably.

You can voice your concerns at 7 p.m. at Hillsborough Commons, 113 Mayo St., Hillsborough.

Bonnie Hauser runs the grassroots organization Orange County Voice. See OCV’s survey of the trash and recycling preferences of 881 families throughout rural Orange County at bit.ly/LhoHEH

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