Haywood’s quest for trash savings dumps costs on towns

Controversy over closing down the Haywood County trash transfer station has resurfaced now that commissioners have put the idea back on the front burner.

County commissioners postponed a decision earlier this year on whether to shut down the transfer station but promised to take up the issue in coming months when they could devote more time to it. It’s now back on the table as commissioners weigh whether to contract out landfill and trash operations to a private firm.

Perry Samuels, the main driver for Jim’s Garbage Service, dreads making the trek all the way to White Oak landfill should the county close the transfer station. It could be the death knell for Samuels, one of a dozen or so trash haulers in the county who pick up garbage every week for a fee.

The extra distance for each haul would add hours to his day and cost more gas, neither of which he can afford.

Theoretically, trash haulers could pass along the extra costs to customers. But Samuels said it wouldn’t fly.

“I would say if we raised our rates, a lot of people would quit us,” Samuels said. He charges $20 a month for weekly trash pick-up — and that’s already too much for some people. Many customers dropped trash pick-up thanks to recession-inspired penny-pinching.

Another problem is that the landfill is not suitable for high volumes of traffic. There are no clear roads through the landfill. Instead, trucks must navigate giant piles of trash strewn across acres and acres of a mud flat in order to dump their loads. Even a mild rain renders it impassable, so trash trucks must be towed by bulldozers.

“You have to get drug in with a bulldozer and drug out with a bulldozer,” Samuels said. The frame on one of his older trucks broke during such an operation, and he can’t afford to buy a new one.

“If we had to buy a new truck, we would just have to quit,”

Samuels said. “We are operating on a shoestring. I got one truck held together with duct tape, baling wire and shoestring. Come out and take a look if you don’t believe me.”

Trash trucks for the town of Waynesville have also been damaged when being towed by dozers, incurring “expensive repairs,” according to Town Manager Lee Galloway.

But county commissioners are eyeing the savings to be gained from shutting the transfer station — roughly $800,000 a year. They argue that the transfer station only benefits a segment of the population: those who have town trash pick-up or pay a private hauler.

Stephen King, the county solid waste director, said all the taxpayers are subsidizing a service used by some.

“We are trying to do what is best for the entire county,” King said. “If the towns chose to go around and pick up, that is their choice. I can’t change what we do because the towns want that service.”

If the towns and private haulers want to keep the transfer station open, they can pay for it themselves, he said.

“From a taxpayer standpoint if you could save $20 off your household fee by having the towns pay for that service themselves, do you not think county taxpayers would want to do that?” King said.


Double standard

There is a catch, however. The county would continue to subsidize convenience centers where residents without door-to-door drop their trash.

If the county will continue to operate convenience centers free for those outside town limits, why not operate the transfer station for those who live in town, argued Galloway.

There are two legs to the trash journey for everyone. The first leg is getting your trash to a central collection point.

For people without trash pick-up, that means dropping it at a convenience center. For those who live in town or pay a private hauler, their trash is taken to the transfer station.

The second leg of the trash journey — the journey the rest of the way to the White Oak landfill — is picked up by the county, whether it’s from the convenience centers or the transfer station.

Towns argue that closing the transfer station creates a double standard for town residents versus county residents. They both pay the same landfill fee on their county tax bill of $92 a year. Yet one would continue to have their trash journey subsidized and the other would not.

The towns have protested the plan as inequitable, but Galloway said the towns have had a difficult time making their case to county officials.

“The question was asked, ‘Why should county residents subsidize hauling trash to White Oak for town residents,’” Galloway recounted of his meeting with county officials. “We said, ‘Wait a minute … we would still be subsidizing the cost of transporting trash for the people who use the convenience centers.’”

Galloway understands the county’s quest for savings.

“The bottom line is garbage is a terribly expensive proposition,” Galloway said. “I am in total sympathy with the county in that regard. But whatever they do needs to be fair to everybody and fair to the entire county. It is not a Waynesville problem. It is a problem for all 60,000 people.”

But commissioners can’t shake the prospect of saving $800,000 a year.

“The savings are real,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. “The general public is looking for us to run an efficient government.”

Ensley said the feedback from constituents is overwhelmingly in favor of closing the transfer station. In fact, they don’t understand why there’s even a debate over it.

“They see it as a no brainer,” Ensley said.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, Commissioner Bill Upton agreed. But there are two sides, Upton said.

“I guess I am in the middle again,” Upton said.


Not sustainable

The cost of operating the transfer station is $800,000 and the cost of convenience centers is $680,000.

King said a costly overhaul would be needed to keep the transfer station going, however. Right now, the transfer station is a jerry-rigged operation.

“Our transfer station is in dire straits,” King said.

Trash dumped off by town trucks and private haulers must be repacked in a tractor-trailer and hauled to White Oak. Ideally, trash would be compacted and baled to fit as much as possible in each load bound for White Oak. But the baler at the transfer station rusted and broke from age. A new one would cost $1.8 million, King said.

Another option is to pack trash into tractor-trailers from above. That’s the way it’s done at the transfer stations in Macon and Jackson counties, and as a result, the tractor-trailers can hold 15 to 20 tons.

But at Haywood’s transfer station, the setup doesn’t allow tractor-trailer trucks to be filled from above. Instead, trash is merely shoveled up into piles by front-end loaders and pushed into the back of tractor trailer.

Workers can only fill the tractor-trailer about halfway before trash starts slipping back out. So trucks head to White Oak with only 7 or 8 tons, requiring twice as many trips.

“Every time our trucks leave out they are less than half full,” King said.

It also takes more manpower to shovel and push trash in the back door of the tractor-trailer rather than dumping in from above.

“We have to upgrade the transfer station. We cannot continue to operate the way we are operating,” King said.

But closing the transfer station would mean making upgrades to the landfill so town and commercial trucks can get in and out.

“We would request that appropriate facilities be constructed so that dumping can be done without encountering the mud and damage to these expensive vehicles,” Galloway wrote to the county in a letter expressing concerns over the plan.

There’s another problem: snow days. The road in and out of the landfill is steep, and last winter there were several days it wasn’t passable. Garbage was stockpiled at the transfer station until the landfill entry road thawed.


Macon also charges towns

Like Haywood, Macon County also has a transfer station. It saves private haulers and town trash trucks in Highlands from making the long trip down the mountain to the county landfill. But it costs them a transfer fee of $8.75 a ton.

Chris Stahl, solid waste director for Macon County, doesn’t feel bad passing along the cost of transporting trash from the transfer station to the landfill to the town residents.

“If you are saving someone an extra 30 minutes round trip by making that trip for them, I think it is proper for them to pay,” Stahl said. “The trash isn’t disposed of until it gets all the way to the landfill. If you are stopping somewhere short of that and the county is picking up the tab to go the rest of the way, the county is subsidizing that.”

The county apparently has no qualms about subsidizing the trash dropped off at Macon County’s eight convenience centers, however, which is hauled the rest of the way to the landfill on the county’s dime.

But Stahl doesn’t see the convenience centers in the same light as the transfer station.

“That hauling is an extra step that some people use and some people don’t. I don’t think it is fair to spread that cost out to everybody else,” Stahl said.

In addition to paying an extra transfer fee, the town of Highlands also chipped in to build the transfer station.

Haywood Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county and towns can work through the debate reasonably.

“This is not insurmountable,” Swanger said “Everybody needs to wait and see what kind of plan can evolve.”

But the towns aren’t content to simply wait. They can’t afford to, Galloway said. Instead, Waynesville is already putting together contingency plans.

“This fall will look at what our costs are to go elsewhere and possibly do our own thing,” Galloway said.

The town is already calculating its options — among them hauling trash to a private landfill in Buncombe instead.

“We have to look at those alternatives,” Galloway said.

Another option is for Waynesville to build its own transfer station, and allow the towns of Canton and Clyde, as well as private haulers, to share it.

The county may also be willing to keep the transfer station open if the town picks up the cost. But Galloway doesn’t like the double-standard.

“It would only be fair if we paid at the transfer station if people who use the convenience centers also paid,” Galloway said.


What is the transfer station?

The transfer station is a trash drop-off site in Clyde where town garbage trucks and commercial haulers can dump their loads instead of making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. The trash is shoveled with front-end loaders into the back of tractor-trailers and transported the rest of the way to the landfill by the county.

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