Money in waste funds is tug of war between counties, state

mlee@macon.comFebruary 1, 2013 

ATLANTA -- When Georgians put trash in a landfill or get rid of an old tire, they pay a state fee that’s supposed to get tires recycled and help clean up hazardous waste sites, old landfills and illegal tire dumps.

As has been the trend for a decade, though, it looks like those causes may get less than half the dollars the state collects in fees for the services. And it’s making some counties angry that what one man calls a “trash tax” isn’t cleaning up public messes.

Michael Snipes, director of the Laurens County Solid Waste Management Authority, said his department has not applied for any Hazardous Waste Trust Fund cleanup money in the eight years he’s been there, though he oversees an old, closed landfill that he has to pay to monitor for leaks.

“The funds are collected by Georgia, allocated by the Legislature, and they’re being raided for the general fund,” he said. “If you know the money’s not there, why bother to apply?”

Each time a ton of garbage is dumped into a landfill like Snipes’, the state collects a 75-cent fee, set aside by law for the trust fund, which prods landowners to clean up hazardous sites or stepping in to work on abandoned sites.

Another fee, the $1 charged to consumers by tire sellers on behalf of the state for disposing of old tires, is similarly earmarked for the Solid Waste Trust Fund, which gets them recycled.

Not only is the hazardous waste fund low, Snipes said, but it’s difficult to get money due to the application fee, the administrative headache of applying and the narrowness of what the funds will cover. Monitoring isn’t covered, though Snipes’ closed landfill is on a state index of hazardous sites.

Applications from government landfills like his to the hazardous waste fund dropped steadily from 44 in 2007 to 15 in 2012. In the same time frame, the fee collection bounced between about $14 million and $20 million annually, but the amount forwarded to the cleanup fund fell from about $14 million to about $4 million,

There are about 130 government landfills statewide on the Georgia Hazardous Site Index, a list of places where there is -- or may be -- a significant release of a dangerous substance that hasn’t been cleaned up.

Snipes calls the 75 cents per ton state charge for putting garbage in landfills a “trash tax.”

Other midstate officials aren’t pleased with the way the system works.

“I’m not so sure they need to be called trust funds anymore, because the money is not being utilized for the reason it’s being collected,” Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said.

Houston contributes between $100,000 and $130,000 to the hazardous waste fund annually, he said, but it has never gotten any back.

“We’ve been a huge donor to that program,” Stalnaker said.

As for scrap tires, he said rules and regulations on that money have tightened up, so the county can no longer get reimbursed for tires it collects on public amnesty days.

“So we’re not even doing that anymore,” Stalnaker said.

There’s a catch

The catch about the two trust funds is that their legal earmark is not as strong as the state Constitution. Without an exception in the Constitution, fees go straight into the state’s main bank account, and the governor and the Legislature decide annually how much goes back out to the two funds.

The governor’s draft budget recommends $1.9 million for the tire fund in the year beginning this July. In the last full fiscal year, July 2011 to July 2012, the fund collected $6.2 million.

For the hazardous waste fund, the numbers are $3.4 million and $13.6 million.

“That’s like if I say, ‘Give me $1.50 and I’ll go buy you a Coke,’ but I bring you back a bag of peanuts,” said state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, author of the recently filed House Bill 127, which would see the fees spent on the funds -- or cut.

“It’s a fee for service,” he said. Voters think they’re paying for cleanup and tire recycling, so that’s what they should get.

But Deal’s office defends his recommendations on economic grounds.

“With the growing demands for funds such as health care and education, the governor has had to make budget cuts across the state,” Deal spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said. “While these projects are important, Gov. Deal has to have a balanced budget and has managed to do so the past two years without raising taxpayer dollars.”

Stalnaker said it is tough budget times everywhere, and Houston could use the money it sends to the hazardous waste fund at home.

Deal asked most agencies to make budget cuts of 3 percent next fiscal year, against a slow economic recovery, and a state budget that has yet to return to its 2007 peak.

But the hazardous waste fund will be able to catch up on a backlog of local reimbursements under Deal’s recommended spending, state Environmental Protection Division Director Jud Turner said during recent state budget hearings.

“We’ve been operating our program at a deficit for the last couple of years,” Turner said. He explained that the biggest return on investments in the fund are finding owners of sites and working with them on cleanups.

But he said the funding for the last few years has not allowed the EPD to tackle abandoned sites. That should change a little under the spending planned for next year. Turner said they will start work on one abandoned site, Simmons Plating, a long-abandoned electroplating workshop in Atlanta.

The tire fund must bankroll more than just cleanups. It runs the program that makes sure tires get recycled, closes abandoned landfills and permits landfills, among other things.

Georgia will spend about $346,000 to clean up illegal tire dumps where the party responsible is unknown or is financially unable to clean up during the year ending this June, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

There are about a half million tires on some 280 illegal sites known to the EPD, for which it has no money to initiate cleanup. It estimates that cost to be about $1.6 million.

Last year, the state House, including Bibb’s delegates, voted for a previous Powell attempt to either cut the fees or use them for the funds. It got hung up in the Senate, but Powell said he feels more confident of passage this year.

The state House and Senate will publish their own draft budgets in the coming weeks and pass an agreement by the time the session ends, probably by April.

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