What’s in a name?
Bill H. 3290, known as the “Business Freedom to Choose Act,” is pending in the S.C. Legislature. This bill, which purports to free business from the horrible shackles of county-imposed waste disposal rules and regulations, is aptly titled to warm the hearts of business-friendly lawmakers in Columbia.
Will the sky be bluer, birds sing prettier and roses smell sweeter if this act is signed into law? For the out-of-state waste management firms financing a massive lobbying effort ($350,000 in 2012 alone) on the bill’s behalf, this may actually be the case.
But for both taxpayers and local governments, the picture isn’t quite so clear.
H. 3290 forbids counties from directing the disposal of waste to specific, county-owned landfills or waste transfer stations. Local ordinances and franchise agreements will be voided, which could lead to local tax hikes. In the name of preventing public “monopolies” of waste disposal, this bill opens the remaining county-level markets to the large national firms that already control the bulk of the state’s waste disposal business.
While privatization is frequently a useful, cost-effective policy tool, the wise legislator always will look at both local circumstances and the fine print. The devil, as always, is in the details.
It’s these details that concern Aiken County officials.
“This bill nullifies the county’s waste management contracts,” said Councilman Andrew Siders. “The impact will be immediate, and the taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.”
Here’s the problem with H. 3290 for Aiken County taxpayers: If this bill is approved and signed into law, large national corporations could swoop into Aiken County, temporarily undercut prices to seize market share and drive the Three Rivers Regional Landfill – which currently disposes of Aiken County trash – out of business.
But with lower prices, wouldn’t the consumer benefit?
Not necessarily. The nine-county consortium that owns and operates Three Rivers remains on the hook for the debt it acquired to build the facility in the 1990s. Imagine a worst-case scenario in which all waste currently disposed at Three Rivers is siphoned off to private landfills, along with their tipping fees. If this occurs, then Aiken County taxpayers still will be liable for their share of this debt. Taxes will rise accordingly.
According to Three Rivers chairman David Summers, this bill “would cripple the authority and cause it to default on $50 million in revenue bonds.”
Therefore, despite theoretically lower rates from private firms, the total cost for waste disposal may actually rise for the typical taxpayer.
Yet even this scenario contains an arguable assumption, as the Three Rivers $32.70 per ton tipping fees are less than the $36- to $38-per-ton tipping fees found at many private landfills. In this case, it’s easy to imagine a situation in which low rates are offered to gain business at the county’s expense, which are then raised after Three Rivers becomes untenable.
So why did Aiken County join with eight other counties to build Three Rivers in the first place? Was this a foolish waste of taxpayer dollars?
Again, not necessarily. In 1991, the Legislature passed the Solid Waste Act mandating county responsibility for solid waste disposal and recycling services within their boundaries. Despite stricter environmental regulations increasing sanitary landfill costs, the counties had to meet these requirements.
To meet this mandate, the Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority was created by Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Edgefield, McCormick, Orangeburg and Saluda counties.
The Three Rivers Regional Landfill opened in 1998. It resides on 1,400 acres off Highway 125 at the Savannah River Site, receives approximately 250,000 tons of waste per year, and has a projected 70-year life span. This massive investment of taxpayer money is now at risk.
The irony of this situation is fairly obvious. With one hand, the Legislature’s mandate led to the creation of Three Rivers. With the other hand, the Legislature is contemplating a bill to wreck the landfill’s financial viability.
Another irony is that county “home rule” is taking yet another hit from a Legislature with a penchant for one-size-fits-all solutions to non-problems. Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, noted that, “We are arguing about nullification and the overreaching arm of the federal government, Obama care and everything else. At the same time, that seems not to bother us when we overreach with local government. It’s not very consistent.”
“Waste management should be a county responsibility,” said County Council Chairman Ronnie Young. “We built Three Rivers to satisfy the Legislature. We run a good landfill. They should leave us alone.”
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.