Albemarle County threw out a plan to privatize trash and recycling disposal last week in the wake of fierce opposition from residents, revving up the argument over who should handle solid waste in the region—the county or private contractors. A proposal agreed upon by the previous Board of Supervisors to quit funneling money to the public Ivy Materials Utilization Center on Dick Woods Road and instead build three privately run “convenience centers” for by-the-bag disposal is off the table, and the new board has a year and a half to answer the question again: Should the government be in the garbage business?
“I think there’s a social responsibility here, so there has to be a collective decision, and to ensure those decisions are implemented, government definitely has a role,” said newly elected board chair and Scottsville representative Jane Dittmar days after the meeting that saw a unanimous vote to scrap the privatization plan.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors voted to end the county’s relationship with the Ivy Materials Utilization Center, the transfer station where residents and commercial haulers can pay by the load to dispose of household and vegetative waste. In doing so, Albemarle attempted to join the city of Charlottesville in severing a tie with the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, the regional agency formed in 1990 to oversee trash and recycling services in both the city and county.
The RSWA was born of necessity: Albemarle and Charlottesville had a joint obligation to clean up the environmental disaster that was the leaking Ivy landfill, which closed in 2001. But the scope and revenues of the authority have shrunk as privatization has nibbled away at the solid waste services it provides.
In 2011, Charlottesville backed out of its half of the joint funding agreement that keeps the Ivy MUC afloat, and city residents’ curbside trash now ends up at van der Linde Recycling, the Troy company run by former developer Peter van der Linde. The authority’s biggest private customer at the Ivy site, Waste Management, declined to renew its contract in 2013.
As a result, the Ivy MUC’s monthly intake was down to 636 tons in October of last year, a 44 percent drop in five years.
Tipping fees have gone up to compensate, driving even more rural county residents and haulers to look elsewhere—particularly to van der Linde, whose company reported a 60 percent increase in the tonnage of trash it processed between 2010 and 2011.
In October, the county decided to jump ship and set up three “convenience centers” on parcels of public land, each with a price tag of about $500,000. There would be on-site fees for those dropping off trash—residents only, no commercial trucks—but no operating costs for the county. Van der Linde’s bid won.
But the sites staff came up with, one near the intersection of Esmont Road and Route 20 in Keene and another off Mill Creek Drive not far from Monticello High School, were hotly opposed by local residents. At a public hearing January 8, 63 people spoke, and almost to a person slammed the plan.
The “mini dumps,” as locals called them, would destroy rural character and endanger schools, residents claimed, and would bring traffic, vermin, odors, noise, methane, mercury.
“Nobody’s going to want a dump in their backyard,” said Brian Lewis, a member of the Mill Creek Homeowners’ Association. The objections were more than NIMBYism, he said. Questions remain about the level of private demand for trash drop-off centers, because the RSWA doesn’t track just how much tonnage comes into Ivy from residents hauling their own waste.
Pam Riley, another member of the homeowner’s association, pointed out that the new system wouldn’t provide some of the services the Ivy center does, like household hazardous waste drop-off. And she worries about handing one company too much control.
“The scary thing about this is the complete privatization and monopolization of every aspect of waste management services,” she said.
Their public sentiments, repeated dozens of times at last week’s hearing and other recent meetings, drove the vote to extend Albemarle’s contract with the Ivy MUC until June 2015. That means forking over another $375,000 or more to the RSWA, but Dittmar said the county has budgeted for the cost—and it made sense to go back to the drawing board.
“This is not an examining your navel kind of thing,” she said. The debate over how to handle trash and recycling might be an old one in the county, but the newly elected supervisors want their chance to examine their options, including new waste-to-energy technology and the possibility of forging partnerships with neighboring counties.
Dittmar acknowledged the key question of just how involved government should be when it comes to the waste stream is still hanging over her and her colleagues. “One of the things this board has to come together on is what we consider to be core services,” she said. “It needs to be asked, and it needs to be answered.”
Ken Boyd, now the board’s most senior member, its only Republican, and for two years one of its liaisons to the RSWA board, has heard all of that before—and he isn’t convinced.
“I’m not buying into the fact that trash collection is a core government service,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t contract it out, like we contract out a number of things.” What is a core function of government, he said, is to make sure services are done right.
The county now has 18 months to figure out exactly what that means, and Dittmar said she’s looking forward to hashing out a new plan for solid waste with lots of community input. The balance of the board is in her camp, and Boyd said he’ll join in the discussion again.
“I’d just like to see a resolution at this point,” he said.