With ash for trash doomed, Cortland legislators seek new fix for landfill

CORTLAND, N.Y. – County legislators are continuing to explore options to offset the high cost of running a landfill.

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The Cortland County Legislature voted down a proposal last month that involved importing about 4,500 tons of ash annually from Onondaga County’s trash incinerator for use as cover at the landfill. The proposal was seen as a litmus test for the broader ash for trash deal.

When that plan failed, even the most ardent supporters of ash for trash declared the deal was dead. Now, county officials are exploring other options to stem losses at the landfill.

What are the county’s options?

1) Increase tipping fees at the landfill

At a meeting of the county's solid waste committee Tuesday, legislators discussed a proposal that would increase the tipping fees charged to trash haulers who dump waste at the landfill.

Currently, the county charges $60 per ton, a rate that hasn’t been changed in over a decade. Tuesday’s proposal would have increased the fee by 25 percent–to $75 per ton–which would have led to an estimated annual revenue increase of $330,000, according to county officials.

But some legislators considered that to be an optimistic figure, pointing out that increasing tipping fees could discourage trash haulers from dumping waste at the landfill.

"I'm afraid this isn't going to be a very good option unless we couple it with flow control," legislator John Troy said Tuesday.

2) Enacting a “flow control” ordinance

Flow control ordinances require private trash haulers to deliver solid waste to a particular waste processing facility.

If Cortland County were to pass such an ordinance, it would force private haulers to obtain a special permit and dump any waste accrued in the county at the county’s landfill, rather than at a private business, a neighboring county or to an out-of-state facility.

More waste dumped at the landfill means more money for the county—though legislators noted that there are legal challenges to enacting such a policy.

“It’s borderline criminal, borderline illegal,” legislator Charles Sudbrink said of flow control. “Why do you think most lawyers aren’t comfortable with [this issue]?”

If the county decides to pass flow control legislation, there is legal precedent.

When Oneida and Herkimer counties—which share a solid waste facility—decided to enact a flow control ordinance in 2006, they were sued by the United Haulers Association, Inc., which argued that the ordinance violated the U.S. Commerce Clause by discriminating against interstate commerce.

Without the ordinance, private haulers could dispose of solid waste at out-of-state facilities at a much lower cost, the trade association argued. The case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Oneida and Herkimer counties.

Michael Cahill, the attorney who successfully argued for the two New York counties, has been working with Cortland County on retainer since the end of 2014, according to Cortland County Legislature Clerk Jeremy Boylan.

Cahill has drafted a flow control policy for Cortland County, though legislators have yet to act on it, Boylan said.

Legislator John Troy said it would likely take the county at least 18 months to get a flow control policy approved. Meanwhile, the county’s solid waste fund continues to operate under an $800,000 annual deficit.

Instituting a policy of flow control and subsequently raising tipping fees could be the county’s best option, some legislators suggested.

Would an increase in tipping fees have an impact on the city?

Yes. The city of Cortland dumps about 2,000 tons annually at the county's landfill, and an increase of $15 per ton would result in a $30,000 increase in costs to the city, according to Mayor Brian Tobin.

That would likely force the city to raise the cost of blue bags, which city residents use for curbside trash pickup, Tobin said at Tuesday's meeting of the Solid Waste Committee. That could lead to more residents opting to hire a private trash hauler, rather than buying blue bags.

“If the landfill fees are higher, I think there’s a strong potential for more trash to be hauled out of the county,” Tobin said.

The city of Cortland Common Council voted Tuesday to increase the price of blue bags, though the increase was not tied to any potential increase in tipping fees at the landfill, city officials said.

Beginning in January, the cost of a medium blue bag will increase from $2 to $2.20. The cost of a large blue bag will increase from $3 to $3.25.

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