Newton County’s waste needs will soon be handled through a Solid Waste Management Authority after a unanimous vote during Thursday night’s Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting.
The move to an authority came after months of discussion following the recommendation of a citizen’s committee on the county’s solid waste needs.
The motion Thursday reactivated an authority which sat dormant and unmanned for some time. The motion to form the authority was made by District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz and seconded by District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims.
With the activation of the authority, the BOC has 30 days to appoint eight members to a board of directors. The ninth member is to be appointed by the board of directors itself.
According to interim county attorney Megan Martin three of the members are to come from elected officials and the other six can be at-large appointees. The appointees will also be staggered in regards to their term lengths, Martin said.
Georgia State Code on solid waste authorities also specifies that the board should have representation from the participating entities, in this case, Covington and Porterdale. (See Georgia State Code on Solid Waste Authority, Part 2, Section 12-8-50 through 12-8-59 at http://ga.elaws.us/law/12-8_7C2.)
“Since Porterdale would be impacted, I feel that someone from Porterdale should be on the authority,” said Mayor Arline Chapman. “There are three entities that are impacted by the landfill. One is Spring Hill, one is the Yellow River, and one is the Porterdale. Porterdale needs to be part of [the authority’s board of directors] as does Spring Hill, and certainly [there should be] representation from the Yellow River Water Trails group.”
Board of directors need to be people “who already has some knowledge about what the solid waste authority is all about or someone willing to study and get caught up with what’s determined by the citizen’s committee to be the best way to deal with the waste ... to dig in, so they bring a knowledgeable understanding to the table,” she said.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston agreed with Chapman. “The mayor and City of Covington welcome the opportunity to be at the table and to help turn the negatives into positive solutions.
“In reality,” he added, “we need to all come together on something like solid waste disposal. I think it’s time Covington was brought to the table to deal with this issue. It’s a community-wide problem, and Covington is a big customer for the landfill. We have a relatively big stake in the issue.”
A citizens committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the BOC was convened in March of last year. It presented its findings to the BOC at its Sept. 2 meeting last year. The primary recommendation was to remove the operation of the waste streams, which includes the landfill and recyclables, from the county and create a solid waste authority to take over the operations.
According to Wayne Haynie, chair of the committee, “Typically, in my experience, as both a citizen and business person, the water and sewer authority has been less subject to political shenanigans than other things we’ve noticed going on in the county. Because they are an enterprise fund specifically for one purpose – to serve the water and sewers needs of the residents – they are transparent, are audited and they’re accountable to the customers.
“These authorities are nonprofit,” he said. “There are no share holders; there is no profit. Any time revenues exceed expenditures, that money is plowed back in to the system. That’s the nature of a well run enterprise fund.”
Mike Hopkins, Director of the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority, said the authority has allowed the entity to focus strictly on its mission. “We run a tight ship. We’re not taxpayer funded; we’re rate payer funded.”
He also said one of the other advantages is “we’re able to hire long-time professional staff. It’s truly operated like a business.”
Authorities, however, are nonprofit. Any profits pay for upgrades to the system, new projects, like installing infrastructure at Baxter and Stanton Springs, and maintaining regulatory compliance, which Hopkins admits, are changing constantly.
Johnny Poore, Director of the LaMar County Regional Solid Waste Authority, agrees. “Regulations have gotten more complicated, [starting about] 20 years ago,” Poor said. “You can’t run things like you used to. It has to be run professionally and a land fill is very difficult to run. Sooner or later you’ll have weather issues, environmental issues, staffing issues.”
Learning from LaMar County
Poore was one of the consultants both the citizens’ group and some BOC members contacted. LaMar County created its regional solid waste authority in 1993 with barely four- to six-months of site-life left in its landfill. Now recognized for its innovative projects, which include converting waste into energy and reclaiming landfill space, it was the the recipient of the 2009 Georgia County Excellence Award, presented by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia’s (ACCG) and Georgia Trend magazine, in recognition of its innovative solid waste authority landfill projects.
According to an article in Georgia Trend, the county is “transforming its 23-acre Cedar Grove Landfill into a state-of-the-art facility. Not only is it recycling some of what’s been buried in its depths for four decades, it’s also making room for the trash of generations to come in the county of about 16,000.” (See article here: http://www.georgiatrend.com/March-2009/2009-Counties-Of-Excellence/.)
Like Newton County, the LaMar County authority came about after a citizens’ group, chaired by Poore, studied and made recommendations on how to handle the area’s waste stream.
“In 1993, when we were formed, we had about four- to six-months of site life left. We either needed to get a new permit or close. We were out of space.”
The county had been managing the landfill, he said, but “the track record for counties is not good. They had so many thing taking their attention, the landfill was on the back burner. When a county runs a landfill, they’re always looking money. The county will [take money from funding] a landfill before anything else to balance the budget.”
In contrast to Newton County, the LaMar County authority started with almost nothing. “We had one old piece of equipment – an old Cat compactor. There were no trucks, no excavators, no bulldozers. We had virtually no staff. There was no electricity, no scale, no office, no computer system and no water at the facility. It was an isolated county dump with a dirt road access.”
The county, he said, had already budgeted money for the operation of the landfill for the remaining four months of 1993. It would continue to run the landfill for those four months, but the revenue would go to the authority. “It gave us a four-month start up,” Poore said. “It wasn’t much.”
However, Poore said, they managed to pull it off and in 1994, the Solid Waste Authority saved the county over a million dollars, which included the cost of monitoring equipment and pond development. The county, he said, “has not paid for anything since 1994.
“The challenges are getting the right people on the board and the right staff; you have everything else. A good vision is also important, and mission statement but that comes from your board,” Poore said.
Newton County’s situation is different from LaMar County’s.
On the plus side, the county has trucks, equipment, scales, staff, space, permits and a collection system in place.
On the minus, the newly-reactivated authority will be inheriting some serious problems, including leachate leaks, remediation for past environmental problems, and repairs to infrastructure at the landfill. They will also need to address the management and staffing of the current neighborhood recycling centers and decide whether or not to move to mandatory curbside trash and recycling collection.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge has been the recent series of leachate leaks at the landfill.
In October last year, a faulty relay at one of the landfill’s leachate stations caused the pumps to fail, resulting in the overflow of leachate – the liquid produced by compacting and decomposing garbage – into a detention pond. The leachate overflowed the holding basin, which, in turn overflowed into the Yellow River.
The equipment failure required over $250,000 in corrective repairs, including the repair of the relays, excavation of the sediment in the ponds and tests to determine if the soil in the pond was contaminated.
Then, overnight between Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, just as crews were nearing the completion of the clean-up, another relay failure prevented the leachate from draining from the landfill, said Interim County Director T. Lloyd Kerr. “Blown fuses were indicated in addition to the failed transformer suggesting the failure could have been related to lightning [from] the storm that evening.”
Then, he said, more than 12 inches of rain fell, causing the ponds to overflow.
During these incidents, it became clear that a number of the pipes that drain the leachate into the holding ponds were unable to handle the buildup of pressure created with by decomposing waste. Leaks sprang at joints that would need to be repaired. Costs were estimated to go as high as $500,000.
The drain on the county’s — and its taxpayers — budget in repairing and running both the landfill and neighborhood recycling center has made the thought of privatizing attractive to some people. However, the citizens’ committee recommended an authority over privatizing the handling of solid waste, Haynie said, because “If they brought in a private company, the county would lose control of the oversight of the landfill. They would lose control of the management and fees, [which would] be overseen by the board [of directors] appointed by the board of commissioners. That would all go away if they privatized.
“My other concern about privatization is we can’t be certain the landfill won’t grow into a large, regional landfill, and we can’t be certain they won’t bring in wastes that would be harmful to our county, such as coal ash,” he said. “Any lined landfill, which Newton County [has], can accept coal ash. If you put it in the hands of a private company, they will take any type of waste.”
Like Haymie, Poore does not think privatization is a good option. “If you privatize, there’s no income and no expense, but there’s no control. A private company can bring in anything that’s approved for disposal in a municipal solid waste landfill. One you go private, it’s a one-way door.”
But, he cautions, an authority is not a panacea for all problems. “A solid waste authority can be run successfully with the right people in place, or they can run poorly. [It’s success] is only as effective as the management, staff, and board.”
Bryan Fazio contributed to this report