Friday, January 21, 2011

Garbage In?

Talking trash

On Christmas Eve, the air along Fairground Road was scented with one of those facets of rural character — the aroma of burning garbage.

Many county residents have always burned their trash. Others hire commercial haulers to remove what is politely called “solid waste” from their property, while some periodically schlep their garbage to one of the county’s two convenience centers. The latter option has become tricky since July 1 when restricted hours of operation were imposed to save money.

Convenience center closures — Thursday for the Fairground Road facility Tuesday and Wednesday for the western one on Hadensville-Fife Road — can be a nuisance if you forget. Once you’ve got the stuff in your vehicle, you really don’t want take it home again. As gas prices rise, heading to the upper end of the county instead of the middle not only wastes time, but gets expensive. If usage at the WCC is low enough to justify a two-day closure perhaps it wasn’t needed all that badly in the first place.

County officials justify the convenience center closings as part of a “sharing the pain” strategy for service reductions necessitated by decreasing revenues from real estate taxes.

According to the Goochland County 2010-11 budget as shown on the county website the closures saved the county $224,115 over last year’s budget, about $4,300 a week. Most of the cost is probably hauling and disposal fees, but the main reduction in cost should be wages and benefits for employees.

It’s hard to believe that Goochlanders are generating less garbage just because the convenience centers have shorter hours. The wages and benefits of fine people who work there are probably not high enough to account for the difference.

The assumption seems to be that most county residents use the convenience centers on weekends so closing during the week aggravates relatively few people. It’s not unusual, however, to find a modest line at the Fairground Road facility even in the middle of a weekday.

Look for mention of a tipping fee — a charge to dump trash — during upcoming budget discussions. When Henrico supervisors imposed a modest tipping fee at its landfills about 20 or so years ago, while also voting themselves a hefty raise, some residents were so outraged that they took to dropping bags of trash by the side of the road.

There may be a darker purpose behind the closures. Remember last year’s budget hearing when county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, at the behest of some supervisors, presented several different budget options.

Three of the options were based on different tax rates and one on essentially raiding the county’s cookie jar to make up the expected revenue shortfall.

In a 3-2 split, with Ned Creasey, District 3, Rudy Butler District and James Eads District 5 voted to retain the 53 cent tax rate last April. So far this year, they seem intent on a repeat. Hold onto your wallet if you have county water and sewer because those rates, and the ad valorem tax in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, are sure to rise.

(The supervisors set tax rates at their April meeting retroactive to January 1 of each calendar year. Payments are due in June and December.)

Reducing hours of operation for the convenience centers and library, both widely used services, may have a purpose other than saving money. Perhaps the Board — or at least some of its members — hopes that citizens will be so annoyed at service reductions that they will offer little resistance to tax increases. After all, the argument goes, with falling assessments, the tax rate can go up but most tax bills will be lower than last year.

Maybe the answer to the budget shortfalls is to raise the real estate tax rate to $1 for one year to catch up. Those pesky rich folk on the gold coast would grumble while they write their tax bill checks. The people in the upper end of the county might have to choose between eating and paying tax on land that has been in their families for generations.

The rub is that not all taxes are created equal. Okay, no one likes to pay taxes, but someone has to pay for government services. Unlike federal and state taxes, which shrivel your paycheck before you get it and goes who knows where to pay for who knows what, local taxes stay right here.

They fund the local services that we take for granted, except for highway maintenance, which is handled by VDOT. Local taxes pay the salaries of people who work for the schools and county and are spent here to keep the few fine county businesses afloat.

We need to believe that governmental expenditures are justified. The school board especially needs to remember that citizens need confidence that their tax dollars are wisely spent.

There are no good answers. Some meaningful economic development about 10 years ago to cushion us against the vagaries of a cyclical economy would have been nice, but the supervisors have to deal with the cards on the table right now. There are no good hands. To further complicate matters, it’s an election year.

Does anyone know where to buy a burn barrel?

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