LAURINBURG — The Scotland County Board of Commissioners will open the floor to county residents on Monday a final time before approving a 2015-2016 budget, which includes a proposed set of fee increases to property owners.
The commissioners have considered the dilemma of the county landfill for years, and are considering charging a countywide availability fee in the hope of accumulating enough money to stem the loss of money by the county’s solid waste fund.
The landfill’s financial straits, brought on by decline in construction and an ebb in the landfill’s intake, have for several years drawn the attention of the Local Government Commission, who have repeatedly advised the county commissioners to address the situation.
“We have a facility that the current waste stream just cannot support,” said County Manager Kevin Patterson.
“When the C&D landfill was opened, we had a lot more modular home manufacturers and frankly the industries were generating more waste than they are now. The modular home manufacturer here is way down, so that waste stream isn’t coming in and with the green initiatives at your other industries the industrial waste is just not coming in.”
As an enterprise fund, the landfill should be self-supporting, but once again it is expected to end the year at a $148,000 loss.
The county commissioners have endorsed the concept of an availability fee, which will be assessed for every habitable property in the county. Patterson has proposed a fee of $85 countywide, which will be reduced to $55 for those living within the municipal limits of Laurinburg, Wagram, and Gibson.
Those with a homestead exemption on their personal property taxes would receive a 50 percent discount. Per bag fees at county “convenience sites,” would also be eliminated.
Over the next few decades, the fee should allow the county to reimburse the general fund, which is currently subsidizing the landfill’s losses, as well as generate the savings required to close the landfill — $1 million — and provide for another $1.9 million for 30 years of post-closure groundwater monitoring.
“Right now the issue is just compounding,” Patterson said. “The landfill already owes the general fund close to a million dollars. That can’t continue forever. At some point in time we hope to close the landfill, and when we do that the funds have to come from somewhere. You don’t want that hitting the taxpayers on their bill in two years when you have the option of doing it over 20.”
If approved, the fee would be added to tax bills that will be sent to property owners in July and August.
The commissioners will also consider an as-yet undetermined increase in the county’s water rates. Though initially Patterson suggested a $2 addition to the $23.59 base water rate, the rate will likely increase by more than twice that amount due to the city of Laurinburg’s proposed 35 percent increase in its water rates.
That increase, if approved by the city, would cost the county an additional $100,000 per year.
“Originally we were talking about an increase in the fee so we can cover the cost of future maintenance and repainting our water tanks, but the majority of water that the county buys is from the city of Laurinburg, so when they’re looking at going up on rates the cost of water we buy goes up,” Patterson said.
“We’re looking at maybe a 15 to 18 percent increase at the absolute minimum. Anything less will not be sustainable.”
The initial increase was proposed in order to fund a contract with Utility Services Group to repaint the county water towers at Deercroft and Gum Swamp Lake, refinish the McEachin Road water tower, and continue to maintain all three towers for the next five years.
All three towers are about 15 years old and have undergone little maintenance since their construction.
“If the system continues as it will, eventually the paint system will fail and then that will cause issues with the water quality,” Patterson said. “We need to go ahead and get in there and fix these tanks.”
Patterson said that he will make a recommendation regarding a water rate increase on Monday night, but that the commissioners will not vote on one until after the city finalizes its rates for the coming year.
The $40,403,688 budget includes a 1-percent cost of living increase for all county employees, and a 2.5 percent raise for those in good standing with five or more years of service. For those with 10 or more years of service, a 5 percent raise was proposed.
The cost of living increase and proposed raises combined would cost the county $214,000.
The budget proposes no change in the county ’s tax rate of $1.03 for every $100 of property.
The proposed budget was balanced using $300,000 of fund balance, which is not expected to happen again as reductions in funding to the school system are under discussion by the commissioners and school board.
According to Patterson, while the solid waste availability fee is effectively an additional tax, it is the only way for the county to eventually shake off the yoke of the landfill.
“With the availability fee, yes it is a tax, we understand that and nobody likes them, but with it we’ve tried all the angles that we know to address the issue,” he said.
“In the last year I’ve talked with three different waste companies about them taking over our entire solid waste operation. They’re happy to talk with us about the transfer stations, but when I mention that the rest of it is part of the deal they are no longer interested.”
Public hearings on the landfill availability fee and on the general fund budget as a whole will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Emergency Operations Center on West Boulevard.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.