County approves new landfill fee

LAURINBURG — While it leaves the tax rate constant, the 2015-2016 budget approved on Monday by the Scotland County Board of Commissioners brings a pair of fee increases to county property owners and those on the county’s water system.

The commissioners approved a solid waste availability fee of $85 per improved parcel per address outside of municipal limits, and $55 for those in the limits of Laurinburg, Gibson, and Wagram. Those fees are designed to bring the county’s landfill and other solid waste enterprises to a break-even point after years operating at a deficit.

The landfill was formerly profitable due to vast amounts of waste generated in construction and industry, which have long since tapered off due to economic slowdown and green initiatives.

“We’re going to just have to pay for ourselves, the citizens,” said Commissioner John Alford. “There’s no other way, we’re not getting any help from industry at this time, nobody’s bringing it in. We have to dispose of it. It is what it is.”

According to County Manager Kevin Patterson, simply closing the landfill would prove more expensive than allowing it to continue, as closing it now would cost 50 percent more than when it is at full capacity.

While the solid waste fund’s negative cash flow fur the current year will total just over $148,000, an additional $83,000 per year would be lost if the landfill were closed, due to the landfill’s post-closure costs and the additional cost of transferring waste to the Uwharrie National Forest.

Patterson pointed out that, while the landfill itself is losing around $30,000 on a cash basis each year, the county’s solid waste convenience sites are losing more than $100,000.

“Each unit is not easily visible; you can’t just take out entire sections and save large sums of money,” he said.

“If you wanted to close the landfill, my recommendation is that really what you want to do is you want to close the landfill, you want to close the leaf and limb, you want to get rid of all of it.”

After reimbursing the general fund — which has historically appropriated fund balance to compensate for losses in the solid waste enterprise — the new availability fees will serve to provide for the $2 million cost of closing the landfill once full.

“What I would recommend is this year we have our engineers review our solid waste plan and have a target for the mid-year retreat to come back and look at options, look at long-term scenarios for what you’re doing,” Patterson said.

Commissioner Whit Gibson suggested that, as the county will counter the solid waste deficit by assessing availability fees rather than using funds obtained through ad valorem taxes, the tax rate should eventually change to reflect that.

“It seems to me there ought to be an offset somewhere,” he said. “I understand why it might not be this year, but I do believe that it ought to be something that we should be working towards. I think that’s a question that, if I were the taxpayer, I would want somebody to be asking.”

The total budget of $40,871,097 includes $450,000 in fund balance earmarked for significant capital projects, which could include a $90,000 chiller for the courthouse and the cost of renovating the Edwin Morgan Center to house county offices.

It also includes a 1 percent cost of living adjustment for all employees and a system of step increases for longtime employees in lower paid positions.

A 15 percent increase in water rates, which will bring the average monthly water bill from $28 to $33, was also approved on Monday.

While that increase will provide for repairs to the three water towers and compensate for the county’s increase in costs with the city’s water rate hike, it will only bring the county’s water districts to a neutral cash position. Over the next three to five years, Patterson said, the county is considering phasing in 30 to 35 percent increases that would bring average bills to $40.

“While we realize that the cost of living in the community may be cheaper than in most places, it’s still, when there’s a significant increase in living here, we understand that it’s difficult for everyone,” Chairman Guy McCook said at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting.

“While it is a very difficult decision for us, I think the short answer for us has been that we’ve got to pay the cost of these services now and not pass these costs onto future residents at some point down the road. The cost of not doing this now just means that the cost of doing it later is going to be even more, and we’re asking our kids and our grandkids to pay costs that we would be reaping the benefits from.”

Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.