County mullswater fee hike,landfill charge

LAURINBURG — During a Monday meeting held to hear public input on a proposed landfill availability fee, Scotland County Commissioners were also asked to consider raising the county’s water rates by as much as 35 percent over the next three to five years.

The increase would match that proposed by the city of Laurinburg at a budget meeting earlier this month. County Manager Kevin Patterson initially proposed a $2 addition to the county’s base rate of $23.59, in order to fund a contract with Utility Services Group to refinish the McEachin Road water tower, repaint the county water towers at Deercroft and Gum Swamp Lake and continue to maintain all three towers for the next five years — but that increase, with the city’s proposed fee, would lead to the county losing $100,000 annually, Patterson said.

A 15-percent increase would yield $7,000 cash annually, but lead to the county losing $140,000 annually in accrued income, according to Patterson, and a 35-percent increase would yield $250,000 cash but only $60,000 in accrued income. While recommending the increase be spread over at least three years, Patterson suggested an immediate increase of 15 percent, which would bring average county water bill to about $33.

“Increased rates does not mean that we’ll be able to expand the water system, it just means that we will be able to take care of the system we have,” Patterson said.

The city is set to vote on its water fee increase at tonight’s regular meeting, set for 7 p.m. at the city’s municipal building. Commissioners will take up the rate discussion at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Emergency Operations Center on West Boulevard in Laurinburg.

During Monday’s public hearing, the board was asked by a current and a former commissioner why the county’s landfill could not be closed immediately rather than using a proposed availability fee to help fund the closure over several years.

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.

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 about $1 million required to close the landfill and provide for another $1.9 million for 30 years of post-closure groundwater monitoring.

“Is it possible that we could decide to close the landfill — go into the general fund and close it now rather than stretch it out?” said Commissioner John Alford, adding that closing the landfill sooner could save the county money.

The same question was posed by former commissioner Leon Butler during the public hearing, who also provided a brief outline of increased taxes and fees imposed on local residents since 2011.

“The thing that concerns me is the $85 — you want to call it an availability fee, but it’s a tax. … Why don’t you go ahead and bite the bullet and close this landfill?”

But Patterson said costs to close the landfill immediately would be closer to $1.5 million, adding that the price is expected to decrease with the amount of waste it collects. The county must also collect revenue required to close the landfill preemptively, he said, as fees can “pre-fund an expense but not reimburse it.”

During the same public hearing, county resident Thomas McKinnon also asked the county to reconsider the $85 fee, saying it “seems unfair” to those who already pay for trash collection. Commissioner Guy McCook replied that the expense to the county of monitoring who did and did not subscribe to such a service would be as much if not more than the proposed fee itself.

Patterson reiterated that residents with a homestead exemption on their personal property taxes would receive a 50 percent discount, but Butler questioned how property owners would pass the availability fee on to low-income tenants.

“So you’re going to pass the cost onto them, and they get subsidized housing?” he said.

The board also reiterated that per bag fees at county “convenience sites,” would also be eliminated, to McKinnon’s approval.

“That trash ends up on someone’s land anyway,” he said. “… People who don’t have much money aren’t going to pay $10 and go without a case of beer.”

Also on Monday, the board approved four budget amendments for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, covering:

— An anticipated $2,178,000 increase in property tax revenues

— An additional $88,028 in beer and wine revenues

— An anticipated increase of $174,271 in sales tax distribution

The board will reconvene at 7 p.m. on Monday to discuss the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget. The meeting will be held at the Emergency Operations Center on West Boulevard.

Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023.