Harford County public works officials say the cost of providing waste disposal and recycling services is projected to increase 24 percent during the next 10 years, and they are considering potential changes in how the current system operates, possibly to include a major shift in the arms-length relationship that has existed for decades with commercial waste hauling companies.
The county is in midst of implementing an agreement to transport much of its garbage and single stream recycling materials to a new multi-million-dollar transfer station in Baltimore County, while also working to meet the Maryland Department of the Environment's Zero Waste Plan, which involves keeping all forms of waste out of landfills by 2040.
Those changes and other potential changes will necessitate development of a new "solid waste fee structure," officials say, but they don't know yet what form it will take – or if it will cost residents more money, either in local taxes or the fees they pay to have their garbage and recyclables hauled away or possibly both.
The Zero Waste Plan calls for alternate disposal methods for waste, such as facilities for composting and recycling food waste, mandated recycling, a ban on throwing away electronic devices, facilities where used drink bottles can be redeemed and waste-to-energy facilities, according to Thomas Hilton, deputy director for environmental services in the county's Department of Public Works.
Hilton spoke to about 40 people who gathered at the McFaul Activities Center in Bel Air Tuesday evening about the challenges facing the county's waste disposal operations as DPW prepares a draft Solid Waste Management Plan for the 2015-2025 period.
"We're soliciting your input on what you would like to see," Hilton told the audience.
"Change is coming, and what we're trying to do is to take [DPW's Division of] Environmental Services and put them in the position where they're going to be able to handle these things," Public Works Director Tim Whittie explained.
Despite questions from audience members, Hilton stressed it is too early to give specifics about the future solid waste fee structure and whether it will cost consumers more or less than what they pay for sanitation services.
Those services include trash and recycling pickup, all done by commercial waste haulers in areas outside the county's three municipalities, resident disposal of household trash and recyclables at the Harford Waste Disposal Center in Street and resident disposal of yard waste for composting at facilities in Street and Bel Air.
Hilton said the new fee structure must be in place by March 2016, in time for the end of the agreement between the Army and Harford County, under which steam generated at a nearly 30-year-old county-owned incinerator is sold to the Army to heat and cool facilities on the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. The incinerator, which is on Army property, is reaching the end of its useful life, and the Army did not want to continue the arrangement.
As an alternative, Harford officials last year negotiated an agreement with Baltimore County to take Harford's trash and recycling to a transfer station in White Marsh. Harford is sharing the costs of building the transfer station and the subsequent disposal of the materials brought there, which Baltimore County is responsible for.
Those costs could be factored into the new solid waste fee structure, according to Hilton, who again stressed that nothing has been decided.
'Second best deal'
In response to audience questions about why the county could not build its own transfer station or improve the existing incinerator, Whittie said the agreement with Baltimore County was "the second-best deal" for Harford.
Hilton noted county officials spent about four years in serious negotiations with the Army, but were unsuccessful.
"No one here is going to say to you that it's going to be cheaper," Whittie said.
He said county leaders are working to "make something that's as efficient and least costly as we can as we go down the road."
The DPW Environmental Services division brings in $12.5 million a year in revenue from solid waste fees, such as fees charged to residents who bring their waste to county facilities and the so-called tipping fees charged to waste haulers as drivers drop off their loads.
Hilton noted the division's operating budget is also supported by about $1.7 million from the county's general fund and that money from the general fund – most of it generated by property and local income tax revenue – covers debt service for the capital budget.
Harford is the largest jurisdiction in the state that does not have a government operated or sanctioned trash collection system. Instead, the majority of residents and businesses, outside the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, contract directly with commercial hauling firms to pick up their trash and recyclables. The fees collected by the haulers are based in part on what the county is charging to get rid of the materials either at the incinerator or at the remaining landfill in Street.
Hilton said officials are considering making DPW Environmental Services an enterprise or special revenue fund, with capital and operating expenses covered by "generators of waste and recycling." In other words, the division would have its own, identifiable sources of revenue and would not depend, directly or indirectly, on general tax revenues, similar to the manner in which the county's water and sewer systems are operated.
More county control
Another plan calls for dividing the county into districts, with private haulers bidding on contracts with the county to serve one or more of those districts, Hilton explained.
According to a telephone survey conducted of 748 county residents in January, more than 70 percent of those who responded said they used a private hauler. Most of the rest presumably cart their trash and recyclables to the landfill, for which a fee is charged to dispose of the former.
Hilton said county officials were considering the contract system for haulers because of "inefficiencies" in the current decades-old system, in which each customer chooses a hauler. He said they have heard complaints from various customers about their hauler's service.
Residents who spoke Tuesday, however, said they did not have a problem with their haulers, though, and one private hauler in the audience, who did not give his name, said he had received few complaints from his customers.
"This is like an attack on small businesses," he said.
Gloria Moon, a Joppa resident and member of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council, asked Hilton if residents could take more time to review the information presented online, including Tuesday's presentation, the results of the January phone survey and a draft of the Zero Waste Plan.