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County eyes ARPA funds to help with landfill project

Daily Inter Lake | November 12, 2021 7:00 AM

Commissioners pledged $900,000 in federal relief dollars toward the expansion of the county landfill this week, but taxpayers likely will still see future increased refuse assessments to help cover the multimillion dollar project.

A crush of new waste in recent years has forced health department officials to speed up the timeline to add a cell to the facility. Director Kathi Hooper said at the current rate of incoming waste — about 42,000 cubic yards annually — the existing cell will run out of space by 2028.

But growth will come with a cost. Officials estimate the tab for the first phase of the project to hit $5.79 million.

“That’s engineering, licensing, excavation and lining the cell. We can stay on that property for a really long time, but this is just creating new cells to the west of our existing cell,” Hooper told commissioners Nov. 10. “It really is just engineering, licensing and construction.”

Health officials had started budgeting for the project and successfully sought funds from the American Recovery Plan Act. Still, the expansion remains $2.5 million short, Hooper said.

She laid out two options for funding the undertaking. One included a proposed $900,000 shift of additional ARPA funds from the county to the project. The other omitted the extra recovery act dollars.

Both would require a jump in refuse assessments, an annual fee placed upon taxpayers and businesses. With the additional $900,000, Hooper said the department could increase the assessment to $60 over three years. Without the extra funding, the department would move ahead with an immediate $60 bump.

The refuse assessment in Lincoln County currently comes in at $135 a year. It was last raised in 2008, Hooper said. Under both plans, the department would have the money to fund the expansion two years prior to the existing cell filling up.

“We last raised refuse assessments in 2008; we try not to ever raise fees, which then gets us in this situation where, in the last few years, we haven’t been able to fully balance our budget,” Hooper said. “We don’t raise refuse assessments using an inflation factor and after 13 years we come to the commissioners and say, ‘We don’t have money.’”

Commissioners committed to the $900,000 infusion, but expressed unease at the size of the increase in refuse assessments.

“It’s going to be a hard pill to swallow to raise the fee $60 in a year,” said County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2). “It’s still going to be fairly challenging doing $20-$40-$60.”

He agreed with Hooper that assessments likely needed to increase incrementally over time. Hooper argued that the fee covered other services likely beneficial to residents, including the green box sites across the county where people can deposit waste.

“We offer so much for free, but that’s $280,000 just to collect garbage at those green box sites every year — and that’s not maintaining the sites,” she said.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) wondered about inaccurate refuse assessments at local RV parks and whether the department was keeping up on new home construction in the region.

“What about all these new homes … they’ve got a storage container and they’re kind of living out of it,” he asked. “It’s not really a household, but generating trash.”

Hooper said that she suspected many properties were slipping through the cracks. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic the past 18 to 20 months, the department had lacked the resources to investigate, she said.

The commissioners also urged Hooper to suss out new funding streams, including additional ARPA grants, but told her that the county would pitch in regardless.

“We’re still committed … to $900,000 from ARPA to offset that cost, especially to the taxpayers,” Bennett said.