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Swain struggles with waste funding

It wasn’t the first time Swain County Manager Kevin King had to tell his commissioners that the numbers were off on the Solid Waste Fund. But this month he added an asterisk of oomph. 

“This is probably one of our worst years so far,” King said, explaining that the fund had a $100,000 deficit. 

 

The Solid Waste Fund is meant to pay for waste management in the county and is funded via fees associated with such. It is what’s referred to as an enterprise fund, and by state statute it must be large enough to cover expenses.

“It’s supposed to have enough revenue to match the expense,” King told the commissioners. “That $75 fee, it’s not enough.”

The county manager explained further this week.  

“They have to operate within the fee that you’ve set,” King said. “Ever how much that brings in, it’s suppose to break even.”

Swain consistently does not break even on its Solid Waste Fund. For years, the county has taken money from its general fund to cover the deficit.

“Ever since the 90s, actually,” King said. “Every year we’ve always put money into sanitation out of the general fund.”

This year was no exception. The $100,000 deficit was not a surprise. Everyone knew it was coming.

“It was budgeted within the general fund,” King said. “We knew we were going to have a deficit.”

Swain County has three tiers of trash fees. Residents pay a fee of $75 a year to dump their household trash at the county’s transfer station. Businesses pay $300 a year, and restaurants pay $400 a year. Larger loads, such as those from building contractors, pay $40 per load.

Once trash is dumped at Swain’s transfer station, the county transports it to an out-of-area landfill. Those costs can vary.

“We don’t have a landfill, so we’re at the mercy of another landfill somewhere else,” King explained. “Everything fluctuates.”

One reason Swain’s trash fund deficit is higher this year is because the county took in a higher tonnage of waste this year. And not all that tonnage is legit.

“We suspect between 15 and 20 percent of the waste that we’re hauling out, by our best guesstimate, is not from this county and not being charged for,” King said. 

“They’re coming in and dumping at night,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “And we’ve got to stop that.”

A particular subset of offenders is contractors. The county tends to collect a lot of over-night C&D, or construction and demolition waste. The county has been identified as a free place to unload under cover of darkness.

“The contractors know this, and not just from Jackson County,” King said. 

“They may redo a house and bring a two-ton truck full of shingles, or a two-ton truck full of sheetrock,” Monteith said. 

King said that once Swain’s new county board is comfortable — two new commissioners were seated Dec. 1 after winning election in November — the out-of-area and overnight dumping issue will be explored. The fix is likely better security and improved monitoring during evening hours. 

“But that’s going to take a lot of money to make that happen,” King said. 

The newly seated board will also consider how best to address Swain’s traditional Solid Waste Fund deficit. The math is obvious — raise the fees or shift the cost to property taxes — but King knows his commissioners have no appetite for such calculations.

“Our commissioners do not want to tax individuals, but we also need to break even on that fund,” the county manager said, declining to give a preview of possible fixes, except to ballpark residential fee potentials. “Right now I couldn’t give you a good number, but it’d be more than 75 bucks. It’d probably be closer to $100 or $125.”

King would like to see a solution surface by budget season in the spring. Monteith isn’t sure how that’s going to happen. 

“I wish we didn’t have to [take money from the general fund], but I will not vote for a tax increase to make things happen,” Monteith said. “We just can’t afford it. Swain County can’t afford no kind of tax increase.”

Commissioner Ben Bushyhead, sworn in this week, said he too would not be in favor of upping the fee. Both Bushyhead and Monteith suggested the county focus on making sure that all the trash coming in is from Swain and being paid for. 

“We definitely have to do something,” Bushyhead said. “But let’s take a look at what we could do to counter some of the other things.”

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