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Trash Talk: W-S, Forsyth scrap over waste

by Amy Kingsley

The City/County Utility Commission has done Forsyth County’s dirty work since 1976, when it was chartered to guide water and sewer service for Winston-Salem and the surrounding county. The commission was designed to include five members appointed by the county, five from Winston-Salem and a chair acceptable to both. Together they would determine water and sewer rates and plan improvements to the system. In 1988, the utility commission assumed control of solid waste services like trash pickup, landfills and recycling. The utility commission was given broad policy-making powers and entrusted to act in the best interests of its city and county constituents. Involvement by elected officials was limited. “It was supposed to be a joint agency of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” said David Saunders, director of the utilities division. “We were given the authority to issue contracts, purchase property and set rates. The only thing the commission cannot do on its own is sell property, we can’t issue debt because the city has to underwrite it and we can’t adopt our own budget.”

This arrangement worked fine for 20 years. Then the city of Winston-Salem and the utility commission started arguing about recycling, and the commission purchased a piece of land straddling the Stokes County border for a planned landfill. The land transaction turned out to violate a state law that required Stokes County’s consent. That blunder and the disagreement over who should pay for Winston-Salem’s curbside recycling program prompted the city council to create a panel that will evaluate the commission. Now the county commission wants to weigh in — setting the stage for a showdown between the agency’s two main stakeholders. In a July 24 briefing session, Chairwoman Gloria Whisenhunt directed county staff to draft a resolution supporting the utility commission that the county commissioners will debate at their business meeting the following Monday. “I think we can take a stronger stand advocating the rate increase recommended by the utility commission,” she said. When the utility commission presented its budget to the city council, the proposal included a 9 percent rate increase and new positions for sewer maintenance. The commission, which has paid the full cost of Winston-Salem’s curbside recycling program since 1991, also asked the city to go 50-50 on the $2.7 million undertaking. The city did not agree to help fund recycling, arguing that it was the utility commission’s responsibility as stewards of solid waste. The council also voted to delay hiring extra sewer workers and recommended to the utility commission that it bring its rate increase down a percentage point. The city also made several cuts in other departments to avoid raising the tax rate. The city’s refusal to pick up part of the recycling tab rankled some rural commissioners. “The Winston-Salem curbside recycling program is restricted to the corporate limits of Winston-Salem,” said Bill Whiteheart, a commissioner from Lewisville. “That excludes the balance of the county. That means that when the cost of the recycling program exceeds your ability to pay for it, then the people outside the corporate limits are effectively subsidizing what’s going on in Winston- Salem.” Pat Swann, the chair of the utility commission, said he is worried that the city’s panel might neglect the interests of county residents. “This is supposed to be a city-county body,” he said, “but the city appointed the committee without county participation. What happens if they come back with recommendations that the county won’t go along with? Do the people win or lose?” In his presentation to the commission, Saunders showed a bar graph that

Multiple lines franchised megadealer for scooters, carts, motorcycles and ATV’s… one of the southeast’s largest! 425 Battleground Ave. Greensboro, NC 27401 PHONE: 336.271.4774 fax: 336.272.6628 PARTS, SALES & SERVICE WWW.SCOOTERNERDS.COM predicted the evaporation of the utility commission’s fund balance by 2014. He cited several trends that have increased expenditures while revenues declined. The county and city lost several large manufacturers — including a Stroh’s Brewery, a Lee Jeans plant and at least one RJ Reynolds Tobacco facility since the utility commission’s inception, Saunders said. “On our peak day last year we moved ten million less gallons of water than we did ten or fifteen years ago,” Swann said. That reduction means less revenue from corporate customers. And it isn’t only happening on the water side of the business. More of the county’s garbage is being shipped out of Forsyth County, which reduces the revenue the utility commission collects from tipping fees, the flat rate charged per dumpster load. “I can’t tell you why it’s happening,” Saunders said. Between 150,000 and 200,000 tons of garbage were shipped out of Forsyth County last year, Saunders said, and most of it probably went to private landfills with lower tipping fees. “We don’t want to hoard all the waste in Forsyth County,” he said. “But we also don’t have anything to replace the revenue stream that we’re losing.” The tipping fees — not water and sewer fees — are the funds that support solid waste services like curbside and school recycling. As these revenues shrink, the cost to deliver those services, particularly the ones that rely on diesel-fueled dump trucks, are going up. Winston-Salem has the lowest water and sewer rates among North Carolina’s five biggest cities. Neighboring Greensboro’s water bills average $84.46 every two months compared to $53.20 in Winston-Salem. The county commissioners commended Swann and Saunders for keeping the rates low. Despite their relative affordability, water and sewer rates have grown in the last few years, each of which has seen increases in the 7 to 9 percent range. Walter Marshall, a county commissioner from Winston-Salem, asked why water and sewer rates continue to climb despite reduced demand. He said that when the utility commission was formed in 1976, he suspected it was designed to avoid public scrutiny of projects that might benefit corporations at the expense of ratepayers. The utility commission minded its political sponsors until four or five years ago, Marshall said,

whenit started making deals that hadn’t been approved by the city orcounty. “I think it became a political body that just got out in frontof the politicians,” he said. “It’s just been such an advocate forbusiness that I worry about the citizens.” Many of those whoserve on the utility commission have strong ties to the business andreal estate community, Marshall said. To balance the influence of theappointed commissioners, he would place two elected leaders — one fromthe county and one from the city — on the commission to make itaccountable to voters. Swann said he would welcome thepresence of elected officials, but said he doubted any would leap atthe opportunity to serve the agency. “I think it would be something that is not very rewarding to an elected official,” he said.

Theutility commission still has the discretion to raise rates as it seesfit, despite the recommendations of the city council, Saunders said.But he said the group is trying to work with the council to come upwith a solution that’s acceptable to both bodies. On July 30,the utility commission’s finance committee will meet to discuss thecity council’s suggestions. He said he’s particularly concerned aboutthe sewer maintenance crew axed from the budget, a move he said wasneeded to comply with a state permit that demands they clean 10 percentof their pipes. “We knew how much manpower we needed in orderto do that,” he said. “The city council didn’t tell us how to meet ourpermit, so now we have to figure out our plan.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@ yesweekly.com.

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