Terri Buckner: If we value recycling, all should help pay for it

Raleigh News & ObserverMarch 14, 2014 

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Commissioners will hold the first of two public hearings on a new payment structure for the curbside/roadside recycling program in the unincorporated portion of the county.

Who is affected? This program is frequently called the rural recycling program, but a look at the parcel map of the service area shows the majority of residents live in suburban-style neighborhoods rather than single homes on multi-acre lots. If you aren’t sure whether your home is served by the county or one of the municipalities, the county picks up every other week and uses orange bins; the towns pick up weekly and use blue bins. In the unincorporated areas, Waste Industries picks up only trash, not recycling.

What is the current fee structure? Until last year, recycling was paid for through a two-tiered fee. The $47/year basic services fee, paid by all county residents, businesses, and nonprofits, covers expenses for drop-off recycling centers, electronics and hazardous waste, public education, and a portion of administrative services.

The recycling fee was charged to those who received curbside/roadside collection service. There were three levels of payment for the recycling fee: urban ($52/year), unincorporated ($38/year), and multifamily ($19/year).

In 2012, a third fee was added to support operations at the five convenience centers: urban ($20/year), unincorporated ($40/year), and multifamily ($4/year).

What is the purpose of the public hearings? Last year, the county manager and attorney advised the commissioners that the legality of the recycling fee could be challenged. While municipalities have the authority from the North Carolina legislature to levy solid waste fees, counties do not. In response, the county stopped charging the recycling fee to individual residents and paid for the service through the solid waste reserve funds while seeking a permanent solution. The recycling fee will be reinstituted for urban and multifamily residents in 2014. After reviewing multiple options for the unincorporated areas, the viable solutions have been whittled down to two: a tax based on property value (referred to as a tax district) and a subscription service.

What is the tax based on property value option (tax district)? Based on estimated cost of services, staff is recommending a tax rate of 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value (developed or undeveloped). A home with a tax value of $200,000 would pay $30 per year compared to the $38 paid under the old fee structure.

Reasons stated at previous meetings for opposing this option include:

• Preference for taking recycling to convenience centers

• Long driveways making it difficult to get the bins in position for collection

• State law prevents the county from levying this type of charge on not-for-profit landowners (however, the county can charge those non-profits who wish to have curbside service a subscription fee even if the residential sector pays based on property value)

• State law prevents the county from excluding undeveloped property for this type of charge

Subscription option: A county survey conducted in January 2013 found that roughly 60 percent of the approximately 13,800 individual residences in the defined service area participate in the curbside collection program at least once a month. Based on data from other communities, at least 20 percent of those residents would choose not to subscribe to the service if given a choice, adding around 342 tons of Orange County solid waste going to a landfill. To make up for those lost fees and still cover operational costs, staff predicts that the subscription cost would need to be set at around $75/year, meaning that many of us will be charged significantly more than we would be paying through the tax district option.

The reasons learned from other communities for opposing this option include:

• Increased costs for those who choose to subscribe

• Increase trash going to landfills

• Loss of efficiency in collections

• Freeloading by those who don’t subscribe but continue to set out their bins

As members of a community, we all pay for services we don’t take advantage of. Young residents pay for senior center operations, and seniors pay for the schools. It’s unfortunate that the recycling issue has been framed by some as creating a hardship on rural residents. Many urban and suburban residents have never been to a convenience center but are charged the convenience center fee that pays for regular trash disposal by rural residents. What’s the difference in asking a handful of rural residents in a predominantly suburban service district to pay a nominal fee to ensure the continued affordability of the curbside collection service for the majority?

If you believe that recycling is a valuable county service and you want to keep it affordable, please plan to attend one of the two public hearings or write to the county commissioners and tell them you are in favor of the tax district.


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