Angry and frustrated with Ellis County, Hays City Commissioners Thursday evening were emphatic they want the county to confirm now what landfill rates it will charge the city over the next five years.
Saying “the county needs to get its act together,” Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV vowed at the Thursday meeting to stop using the county if the city can’t get an answer on fees.
“Here’s the problem, the county raised the rate on every taxpayer in this county without any notice last year,” Schwaller said. “The city and every person living here had to bear the burden of that. When asked if they could get something together for us this year, they can’t do it. I am going to vote to move to a private hauler.”
County rates are an issue as the city looks at having to raise trash and recycling fees for the first time since 2006.
Director of Public Works Jesse Rohr said starting in August the city needs to raise the monthly trash and recycling fee Hays residents pay from $15.20 to $17.48, a 15-percent bump.
Smaller increases would roll out each year from 2021 through 2024, starting with 5 percent in 2021, 3 percent in 2022 and 2 percent in 2023 and 2024.
Right now the city’s trash and recycling expenses are higher than revenue from fees, Rohr said. Expenses are running $1.54 million annually, while the city only takes in $1.3 million, he said. The city will dip into reserves to cover the shortfall, he said.
Expenses are growing about 2 percent a year, said Finance Director Dan Rupp.
City staff looked at alternatives, said City Manager Toby Dougherty.
“We did come up with another contractual option for a different hauler that would give us a contract to do that, which was less than the county,” Dougherty said. “We did go back to the county and asked them if they could give us a better deal and we haven’t had a formal response from them.”
While waiting several months for an answer, Dougherty said, he was reluctant to recommend going with the private contractor, because that option was a five-year contract with the rate guaranteed for just the first three years.
So while the city might initially save 50 cents on the rate, there might be potential downside, he said.
Landfill fees make up 77 percent of the city’s solid waste costs, said Schwaller. At the same time, Hays residents are 85 percent of the county population, he said.
“If we are no longer their customer, they will collapse,” Schwaller said of the county. “If they can’t sharpen their pencil, and they have had months to do it, then I will vote to go with this other contractor.”
A city rate increase is meaningless without knowing what the county will charge, Schwaller said.
City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs asked Dougherty if he’s talked to the county.
“We’ve had dialogue with them,” Dougherty said, adding, “I can’t negotiate with myself though.”
“I’m starting to feel a little bit held hostage,” Jacobs said.
Right now the city of Hays takes the bulk of its household goods and polycart trash to the Ellis County Landfill, while construction demolition and alley cleanup are transferred to Garden City by Ellis County, with Hays paying waste disposal fees there.
Ellis County in 2018 raised what it charges the city from $68 a ton to $75 a ton, Dougherty said.
He recommended asking the county for a formal answer, and that the commission wait to take up the question again until its Aug. 8 meeting, necessitating the city to dip another month into its reserves.
“We can just make it very clear we need their last and best offer,” Dougherty said.
Schwaller said going with the county risks uncertainty.
“We don’t know what the rate will be next year,” he said. “Yet we have another offer in hand that’s lower and costs the taxpayers less and gives them the same service, they won’t notice the difference, it’s a locked in rate. That is pretty shocking. I’m very angry about this.”
City Commissioner Eber Phelps asked for details about Hays building its own transfer station.
Dougherty said the staff looked into that, making Hays essentially its own middleman, but the revenue wouldn’t be sufficient to exceed the capital costs for equipment and building the facility.
Jacobs said the city and county must collaborate.
“It would be so difficult for me to say we’re going to take this business away from the county,” she said. “But at this point I don’t know if we have any option.”
City Commissioner Ron Mellick was also concerned.
“I think, next week, if they don’t have us something,” Mellick said, “I’m willing to go with a private hauler.”
Revenues have declined in part because the city no longer makes as much on paper and cardboard recycling, Rohr said. In 2011, that revenue was $63,000, while now it’s less than $5,000.
City Commissioner Shaun Musil asked about the economics of the city’s recycling program.
During that discussion, Schwaller said that while paper, metals and glass are still in demand worldwide, the Chinese and other countries are no longer taking U.S. plastic.
“No one’s buying plastic anymore,” Schwaller said. “China didn’t know what to do with our plastics so they dumped it en masse into the ocean.”
Globally, recycling plastic is water intensive, Dougherty said.
Schwaller said the city needs to rethink it’s recycling program.
Mellick expressed his concern.
“I hate to see recycling go away. I think our citizens, even if it is costly, want that,” Mellick said. “It’s a feel good, we want to take care of our local environment, our nation and our planet.”