Faced with a tall and growing stack of bills in the solid waste department, Haywood County commissioners are seriously considering offloading part of county trash and recycling operations to private companies.
Whether it’s the $4.5 million spent to expand the White Oak landfill, expensive equipment sorely in need of repair or replacement, environmental fines incurred by the now defunct Francis Farm landfill, or a relentless rise in recycling without staffing to sort it — county commissioners have just about had enough.
The equivalent of 15 full-time employees would be out of a job as early as July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, if the outsourcing plan is enacted. Commissioners have yet to vote formally on the drastic change in county operations, but Commissioner Kevin Ensley says the board seems to be in agreement thus far.
“We’re pretty much going to be doing this,” Ensley said.
A solid waste task force has examined every facet of the issue and recommended the following:
• Privatize the county’s 10 convenience centers, where residents without trash pickup dump household garbage and recyclables, a move that would save the county $145,192.
• Eliminate the pick line at the recycling center where employees sort recyclables. Instead, haul recyclables — other than cardboard, paper and metal, which can be more profitable to sell — to another county to be sorted by machine. Citizens will be encouraged to sort their own recycling. Projected cost savings: $286,166.
• Eventually close the transfer station in Clyde some time this fall. Towns with trash pickup and private haulers would have to take loads directly to the White Oak landfill. Residents can still drop bulky items, metal, cardboard and paper in Clyde, however. Projected cost savings: $940,000 annually.
The first two recommendations may take place as early as July 1, though the transfer station shutdown will have to wait until the landfill is prepared for increased traffic. It would need a redesign to keep the public separated from heavy dump trucks and improvements to the dirt roads, which are passable only by four-wheel drive in the rain.
Even if the first two recommendations are implemented, the solid waste fee would still shoot up from $70 to $92 per household this year. County leaders say that the fee would jump even further to $110 if they don’t contract services out to private companies.
“We can’t ask our people to pay much more,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.
“Now would be the best time for us to go down this path,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger, who anticipates soliciting proposals and bids from contractors in the very near future.
Haywood leaders have already been in discussions with one Tennessee company and two North Carolina companies so far.
Furthermore, county leaders are exploring the option of private management of the landfill and have not completely ruled out selling the property.
“If they brought up the idea, we would listen,” said Stephen King, solid waste director for Haywood.
A devastating week
Last week, King had the difficult task of calling his employees at the recycling center together to announce that they would likely lose their jobs in less than two months.
King ran down to most of the county’s 10 convenience centers to personally deliver the bad news to workers there.
“It’s a very difficult predicament to be in,” said King. “I felt personally if I didn’t let them know, I would be doing them a disservice.”
Regardless, workers at the pick line are still deeply disappointed in county leaders.
“A lot of them have worked for some time,” said Dan Best, a pick line worker. “It’s just devastating for the people.”
With an unemployment rate at about 12 percent in Haywood County, Best said commissioners are sending much-needed Haywood jobs out of the county.
Larry Boone, an employee at Hazelwood convenience center, said he felt “uneasy” about the potential of losing both his job and benefits. Some of the savings from a private company taking over would likely be a result of lower wages and fewer benefits.
Though convenience center employees like Boone have a real chance of being rehired by the private companies that take over, it’s another story for the pick line workers at the recycling center.
“I have a lot of compassion for the employees,” said King, who said the gathering at the recycling center brought tears to his eyes. “I’m right here working with them.”
Ensley said he, too, hates to see job loss but pointed out that the county’s recommended budget is 2.5 percent lower compared to last year’s budget, reducing the size of government and saving taxpayers of Haywood County more money.
“I’m not comfortable with us losing jobs, but I’m more not comfortable with raising the fees and taxes,” said Ensley. “I would rather keep those as low as we can.”
Benefits of privatizing
Commissioners have depicted privatization of trash and recycling operations as a direct path to efficiency.
The county’s current system is decidedly antiquated compared to what private companies devoted solely to solid waste accomplish every day.
King said it’s been difficult trying to fix equipment so old that he has to call all over the country to find parts.
“It’s a lot of cost involved to get yourself updated,” said King. “We’ve just scraped by for so many years in trying to utilize everything we can.”
Most private companies can compact garbage far more tightly, which could mean a doubling or even tripling of the landfill’s capacity, according to Swanger.
Shutting down the transfer station would save the county from ferrying loads of trash to the landfill. “The least amount of times we can touch something, the more money you save,” said Upton.
County residents, however, would not be forced to make the long trek out to White Oak — located at exit 15 off I-40 — and would still be able to dump bulky items, like couches, at the Clyde facility.
Town and county residents may have to begin sorting recyclables since the county will ship off certain recyclables but keep paper, cardboard and metal in-house.
For now, blue bags containing those products would still be hauled away to be sorted by machine, even if they contain paper, cardboard or metal.
King pointed out that using a machine would be vastly more efficient than having employees pick through mountains of blue bags manually.
“If we’re able to process two tons a day, they’re able to process eight tons an hour,” said King.
According to Dan Best, a recycling pick line employee, the commissioners would not save taxpayer money in the long run.
“It’ll be just as expensive or more expensive,” said Best. “They’re using that for an excuse, and it don’t hold water...What they’re after is to get it out of their hair.”
It would cost more to haul away recyclables than sort them here, Best said, adding that contractors may initially offer attractive deals, but they would jack up prices once they’ve secured an agreement.
Swanger disagreed, arguing that the county would carefully construct contracts with private entities to protect the taxpayers from such price increases.
Paul White, a private hauler in Haywood County, agreed with Best, adding that the move would actually harm small businesses and private households in the end.
Hauling trash directly to the landfill rather than the transfer station would prove taxing for his vehicle, since access to the landfill can be especially difficult during bad weather, and construction debris like nails often damage tires there.
White said he’ll have to pass on the cost for upkeep to his customers, some of whom are already having trouble paying for the service with the poor economy.
“That pretty well puts me out of business,” said White.
Though the county planned to meet with private haulers to discuss privatization, White is skeptical about how much voice he and his fellow haulers will actually have.
“They already know what they’re going to do,” said White. “This is just a token meeting.”
Not a philosophical decision
County leaders openly support the idea of privatizing the landfill, but they stop short of touting privatization as the answer to all of government’s problems.
“This is not a philosophical discussion,” said Swanger.
King said it’s not a matter of government’s ability, but rather of adequate funding.
“I think government can do jobs as well and sometimes even better as long as it’s properly funded or maintained through the years,” said King. “If we’d started from day one funding the whole aspect in a different matter, I think we’d be in a little bit different shape.”
Privatization isn’t the best option for every county department in Swanger’s view.
“I think it’s function-specific. There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education,” Swanger said. “Many things government does and does well. There are other things that can have better results with a public-private partnership.”
Swanger said the proposed solution for solid waste would create such a partnership, with regular reviews, scrutiny and compliance ensured by county officials.