Study: Raise Columbus trash fees in years ahead

A city study that proposes a $5 increase in Columbus’ current $14 monthly fee for twice-a-week garbage pickup projects more increases in the years to come, bumping the fee to $32 a month in the year 2027 — if the city maintains the current level of service.

Cutting service to once a week would reduce that projection only slightly, to $29.25 a month that same year.

City administrators say the money will be needed to serve a growing population, cover the increasing costs of providing the service, and prepare to close current landfills and build new ones outside the county, if the city doesn’t find new technologies for waste disposal.

The study also proposes the city switch to a mandatory recycling program in July 2012 to divert more trash from the landfill. Currently about 42,000 residents participate in the city’s recycling program, out of about 55,000 homes getting garbage pickup. Recycling is estimated to reduce by 5 percent the amount of trash by weight going into the Pine Grove landfill off Schatulga Road.

Pine Grove is expected to last until 2034. Then the city either must find a new site or a new way to dispose of its trash. Because of a lack of available land within Muscogee County, and because neighborhoods typically fight having a landfill nearby, the city may have to find a site in another county.

Columbus also operates two “inert-waste” landfills that accept only tree limbs, grass clippings and other yard waste. One is at Oxbow Meadows, 3491 South Lumpkin Road; the other is Granite Bluff, an old quarry at 7589 River Road. Oxbow is forecast to fill up in 2019; Granite Bluff in 2033.

Also expected to close in 2019 is a site at Pine Grove set aside for construction and demolition waste. Columbus no longer will accept such trash after that, says the study.

The funding for waste disposal and landfill closure comes from what’s called the city’s Integrated Waste Fund. Ninety percent of its revenue is derived from residents’ monthly garbage fees. Ten percent comes from “tipping fees” paid by those dumping at the landfill on their own, from commercial customers and from selling recyclable materials.

According to the city study, the Integrated Waste Fund’s revenue since 2002 has increased by 4.8 percent while costs have jumped 51.9 percent, causing a funding shortfall of $2.2 million the city covers by using money that was supposed to be reserved for the costs of closing landfills.

Closing a landfill like Pine Grove can be expensive because environmental standards require that it be sealed and monitored for decades to ensure it’s not polluting groundwater or eroding.

Building a new landfill could cost more than $14 million, the study says.

The city depends heavily on inmate labor for its garbage services, saving $3.1 million a year in labor costs. But the study finds a flaw in that system: Having unskilled inmates operating expensive landfill equipment leads to costly machine repairs — $123,720 last year. Also the inmates aren’t using landfill space as economically as a skilled operator could. The study suggests the city replace inmates operating heavy equipment with five paid workers.

Another recommendation is that the city switch to “single stream” recycling and expand the materials recycled. Currently the city runs nine recycling trucks, each divided into compartments into which laborers sort and deposit recyclables by type: cans, bottles, newspapers, magazines. Were the materials collected in a “single stream,” and then sorted at a recycling center, crews could use regular garbage trucks and just dump it all in.

That could save about $1.6 million annually or $40 million in 25 years, the study says.The city also wants to start recycling white paper, plastic bags, cardboard, cell phones, rechargeable batteries and automotive fluids.

Increasing the projected costs of providing residential garbage pickup is the anticipated gain in Columbus’ population, spurred by area business expansion and growth at Fort Benning. The number of households getting garbage service by 2028 could be about 62,000.

Maintaining twice-a-week pickup while generating enough revenue to meet the city’s waste-disposal needs would require a series of fee increases beyond the $5 bump to $19 a month recommended short-term.

The study proposes an increase every four years. Were Columbus Council to adopt this fee schedule, the $19 monthly fee starting July 1 would jump to $21.75 in July 2012; $24.75 in 2015; $27.75 in 2018; $31 in 2021; and $32 in 2027.