Solid waste taxing district considered

The Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) has unanimously endorsed a motion asking the county to look into a taxing district that would support solid waste management on the Point.

At their March 14 meeting commissioners heard from Whatcom County Health Department environmental health supervisor Jeff Hegedus and environmental health manager John Wolpers. They came to “continue the conversation” about how the community wanted to tackle the challenges of maintaining a sustainable and effective solid waste system given the small size and remote location of Point Roberts.

“Where we go from here is, we want to come down in altitude, working towards any recommendations the community may have but we want to do it slow,” Hegedus said.

Working with the results of a recent community survey he said they were looking at five areas: good service, reduced illegal dumping, increased recycling, vendor stability and affordable collection services. “All these moving parts are connected,” he said. “If you do one thing here, it changes what goes on over there. Every time you change something it has to be technically feasible, economically viable, politically palatable. You have to be able to manage it, and there’s friction between all these moving parts. It’s not so much what you do but how you do it. We want to resist the temptation to come up with solutions before we find problems.”

From the audience Arthur Reber suggested the most salient problem was that garbage collection was effectively optional on the Point, whereas it was mandatory elsewhere in the county. Hegedus agreed the county had an ordinance under which everyone must have curbside collection services, but that same law also has provisions for property owners to apply for an exemption. “They made additional language for Point Roberts that said people who lived here seasonally would be encouraged to have curbside collection but didn’t have to,” he said. “In Point Roberts, if you’re seasonal you don’t even need to get an exemption.” The result is that while Cando Recycling and Disposal only has 300 customers, the company is nevertheless required to provide the service, and the state regulates what it can charge.

“Find a way to make it obligatory,” Reber said, which would by economy of scale allow it to be more affordable. “That way everybody pays for it and if you don’t want to use it, don’t use it.” This could be through property taxes or through a process similar to the water system where connection to the system is mandatory for developed properties, and they must pay a monthly minimum fee regardless of whether they use water or not.

“What we have found is the exemption process is absolutely not working,” Hegedus said. “I have drawers full of exemption paperwork. It’s a failure.”

In Vancouver, Hegedus said, they have a hybrid system where a base cost for the service is included in property taxes and there are additional fees for additional volume. “The less trash you produce the more money you save,” he said. Other cities also had a combination of tax-supported solid waste systems, flat fees and user fees. “If we could do that would we want to?” Hegedus asked, also requiring what combination would work for Point Roberts. “I can’t see us going backwards to no curbside collection. I don’t think that’s what people want.”

The current system, lacking economy of scale, leads to vendor instability and higher prices. “Kudos to Cando for holding the line,” Hegedus said. The company has raised disposal costs by only a penny a pound in eight years. “With more customers Cando could have even lower prices and improve service.” With more income to improve services, the hauler could offer more options that would be practical for seasonal residents, which might lead to a decrease in illegal dumping.

PRCAC member and seasonal resident Jeff Christopher pointed out that Canadians with vacation properties north of the line expected to pay for garbage through their taxes just like they did at home. “If I’m in the Gulf Islands it doesn’t matter if I’m there once a year, I have to pay,” he said. “So why shouldn’t we have to pay here?” He suggested part of the review of the Point Roberts Special District PRCAC is proposing to undertake could be to include mandatory curbside pickup either through regulation, taxes or as a hybrid system. “I think it’s very sellable,” he said.

“We need to understand, from the community, what you want,” Hegedus said. “The product we want is a series of options ranging from the no action alternative, what the consequences would be, to duplicating the city of Vancouver’s highly sophisticated system and successful model to options in between.”

One option he suggested could be investigated was the formation of a public utility district, through which elected commissioners would set a tax levy rate applied to all properties and the funds raised could fund all or part of the garbage collection system. “We already have a water utility. Couldn’t garbage be part of the water bill?” suggested P.J. Minter.

PRCAC members voted unanimously to request the county solid waste division investigate the possibility of a public utility and other options for solid waste in the community.

“Once we have figured out what the model looks like it’s a small matter for us to take an ordinance and go talk to council, but council needs to see there is support for it before they’re going to vote to approve it,” Hegedus said. “In my mind, you have to have curbside collection services – the question is how. How do we keep those levels of service where we want them, costs where we want them? We are a consumer society and if we don’t manage what that society produces, it impacts all aspects of our lives.”

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