Spokane County Commissioner Al French understands that garbage disposal is not the most glamorous topic on the government docket.
While the essential service may not draw public interest like road repair or the latest expenditure in the parks and recreation department, French is working diligently to get the word out about a unique regional effort that could mean significant savings for cities like Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake and Millwood.
A two-day summit in early February at the CenterPlace Regional Events Center in Spokane Valley generated enough interest among local jurisdictions to form the Regional Solid Waste Task Force, a group, in French’s words, “that works as an alliance looking for the best technology at the best price.” The task force met twice a month from March through early June.
“We’ve had good participation and a lot of good discussion,” French said.
Spokane Valley Public Works Director Neil Kersten has been a regular at the meetings, as has Council Member Gary Schimmels, who serves on the Regional Solid Waste liaison board. Liberty Lake has been represented by Community Development Director Doug Smith.
Currently, towns and cities throughout Spokane County take their trash to a waste energy plant managed by the city of Spokane. In a presentation before the Liberty Lake City Council on Aug. 16, Commissioner French described how there has been talk of Spokane increasing the tipping fee at the plant from the current rate of $98 per ton to $141 per ton.
French served on the Spokane City Council for eight years and chaired the city’s Public Works Committee; he also has experience with public utilities through committee involvement with the Association of Washington Cities. The commissioner told the Liberty Lake City Council that his former city’s decision to raise rates – especially after the last bond is paid off this year – caught him off guard.
“We had always talked about lowering the tipping fee when we retired the debt and here they are increasing it,” French said. “As a region, we can do better.”
French added that Spokane County commissioners have had a preliminary discussion with representatives from Kootenai County regarding landfill capacity in North Idaho. A tipping fee of $65 a ton has been mentioned, French said.
Gerry Gemmill, deputy director for the city of Spokane Public Works and Facilities, said earlier this week that French’s numbers “may have come from early in the process when there were some projections about the future.” Gemmill said a shift of $10 per ton to $108 “is much closer” to the anticipated increase.
Gemmill added that the tipping fee has only been raised $1 per ton over the course of the past 15 years and noted that the Board of Spokane County Commissioners votes along with the Spokane City Council on any proposed rate hike.
The current local interlocal solid waste agreement expires in 2014, although the city of Spokane Valley’s contract is up at the end of this year. Kersten said the city is prepared to sign a three-year addendum to the current agreement as a way “to be on board with the other cities until 2014.”
The issue of an alliance has come up briefly in a Spokane Valley City Council workshop session but has not progressed beyond that point. Kersten said the subject will be discussed at a combined meeting with the county on Aug. 31.
“There are some dealings with the county and the city of Spokane where we have not yet heard the final outcome,” Kersten said. “I would much rather see a regional system where everyone works together.”
In operating as a municipal nonprofit corporation, the regional task force would utilize what French called “a weighted voting structure.” A simple majority would be required for approval of day-to-day functions – or 45 percent of the population and 50 percent of the cities. In matters like incurring debt, hiring administrative staff or major contracts, a supermajority – or 45 percent of the population and 60 percent of jurisdictions – would be required.
“It creates balance in the system,” said French.
Cities are now in the process of reviewing an interlocal agreement drawn up by the county. French said a response from each jurisdiction has been requested by Oct. 3.
Schimmels said it is still uncertain as to the direction the city of Spokane will take when it comes to joining the alliance, though he did say he has yet to see a representative from the Spokane City Council at any of the task force meetings. Gemmill has typically represented the city at the gatherings.
“This is not an alliance against the city of Spokane,” Schimmels said. “They just might want to go to the vendor side.”
County Commissioner Mark Richard said the task force will continue to work toward a system “that saves every taxpayer in the entire county money.” He applauded the city of Spokane for “being very attentive throughout the process.”
“This has been a very collaborative effort,” Richard said.
Schimmels echoed the note of encouragement about the task force but downplayed the need for “outlandish change.”
“We’re looking at the entire picture and being positive about it,” he said. “It’s a good system. We just need to polish it up.”