Property tax bump looming

Calaveras County supervisors eyed the county dump as a source of recycling solutions Tuesday, sizing-up a ballot measure that would patch the county’s landfill budget through a 28 percent bump in existing property tax fees.

Property owners now pay $150 per year, a rate set in 1991, to support the landfill. The measure, which is aimed at offsetting the dizzying cost of complying with state-mandated recycling regulations, would add $42 that fee by 2014.

Public Works Director Tom Garcia said increasing costs of “diversion,” or recycling, programs are outpacing the program’s resources.

That recycling program, he said, faces a $1.1 million shortfall at a time when the county lacks the roughly $5.1 million necessary to open another 50 cubic feet of landfill.

“The issue is that operational funds meant for the Rock Creek Integrated Waste Site are being used for diversion programs instead,” Garcia told board members. “The problem with the diversion program is increasing (state) regulatory requirements and costs.”

Boosting the parcel fee is, according to Garcia, the best available option.

“We’ve reduced personnel, we’ve reduced landfill equipment. We’ve looked at reducing transfer station hours and there was no support for that. We looked into transfer station consolidation and there was a lot of opposition,” Garcia said. “We’ve taken every action we can on the county side as far as reducing costs.”

Garcia said most of the others, including gate fees and special waste fees, have been either tabled or defeated by past boards.

“The last funding source available to the county is parcel fee adjustment,” he concluded.

Half of all county waste is currently required to be diverted to non-landfill disposal options.

That requirement could be on the way up, Garcia warned, and that would be calamitous in light of some $3.6 million in noncompliance fines.

“They say we were not in compliance between 2007 and 2009,” he said. “We have a lot of issues with that. … Every two years (the state) thinks we throw away more than we should given sales tax revenue. So we’ll be working with CalRecycle to address those issues.”

Of special note to supervisors was the fee solution’s shelf-life. Board members haven’t brought skyrocketing garbage disposal costs home to roost in more than two decades, a fact not at all lost on longtime District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway.

“Since you’re not going to find five board members who are jumping up and down screaming ‘Let’s go for it!’ How far out will the new $192 fee take us?” Callaway asked, wondering how long it might be before another fee increase.

“The foreseeable future,” Garcia replied, adding that pre-recession projections show parcel growth would have otherwise covered escalating costs.

Once the economy rebounds, he expects that “the landfill will close” before the county would have to project further fee increases.

Unconvinced, the board pressed Garcia on measures that would automatically trigger needed fee raises so as to avoid future political fights.

“I know when I was first campaigning, the big issue was something that happened 10 years previously: The (landfill parcel fee) was raised to $150,” Supervisor Steve Wilensky said. “People wailed about that. Come to find out, it was one of the greatest acts of courage and foresight seen on this board in years.

“The question,” he added, “Is if in situations like this, where the train wreck isn’t far off, isn’t there some way we can find a longer term approach?”

Board members, who did not take binding action on the issue, will look to regroup around those longer term solutions sometime next month.

Supervisors have called for further study sessions and a series of public hearings on the matter.

Once granted the board’s blessing, the measure would likely appear on a special election ballot in March of 2013.

Contact James DeHaven at james@calaverasenterprise.com.

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