Sale of landfill, tax hike among Augusta budget options

 

Selling Augusta’s landfill to a waste management company could balance the city’s 2012 budget, eliminate liability and provide a guaranteed revenue stream for years to come, City Administrator Fred Russell said during a budget workshop Wednesday.

Other options for closing a $7.9 million shortfall include raising taxes, furloughing employees, eliminating 34 filled positions and cutting department spending on a sliding scale. The budget must be balanced by Nov. 16.

Only Mayor Deke Copenhaver and commissioners Jerry Brigham, J.R. Hatney and Wayne Guilfoyle heard the proposals at the workshop.

Only Copenhaver appeared receptive to selling the landfill, a proposal Russell said came up during a recent talk he had with a waste management company.

The deal would be complicated, particularly in the permitting process. But if completed, it could provide a $25 million infusion in 2012 and $20 million more over a 25-year period, Russell said.

The solid waste department and 1,200-acre landfill, which sell methane and handle environmental cleanups, are money-makers for the city. Finance Director Donna Williams said they generate about $3.3 million in operating income each year.

Under a deal Russell said he would like to negotiate, the buyer would assume all costs, including those related to trash pickup, the landfill’s bond payments and costs associated with closing the landfill at the end of its 100-year lifespan.

“I see it in some ways as releasing a liability,” Copenhaver said. Environ­mental issues associated with the landfill will only become “bigger and bigger,” while sale to a private firm might also generate some property taxes on the land, he said.

Commissioners present – and one who was not – did not like the idea.

“This government is trying to do anything and everything they can to remove responsibility away from itself to a private entity, knowing it’s going to cost a lot more money,” said Hatney, citing several deals he said had limited returns of revenue.

Brigham cited the popularity of Augusta trash collection and called the idea of selling the asset disastrous. “Maybe $250 million, and I might consider selling it,” he said.

“That’s one of about two assets that produce revenue for the city,” Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said after the meeting. “It’s a short-term solution to a revenue problem.”

Russell, whose name turned up as a finalist Tues­day in Sarasota County, Fla.’s search for a new administrator, said the proposal would get Augusta out of trash collection and urged the commissioners to think “on top of the box” about it.

When the landfill is full, “we probably, probably won’t be throwing our trash in a hole and covering it up with dirt,” he said.

Russell said the sale was not a fix for the city’s current budget woes, and recommended adoption of a third option he presented.

That option, according to a handout, includes a 1.039-mill tax increase; three furlough days; elimination of 34 filled positions; adding three public defenders, an interpreter and a deputy coroner; and a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for employees effective in July. It accounts for $1 million in savings from restructuring the fire department.

“We still want leaner and meaner,” Russell said. Copenhaver said he preferred that option.

Other alternatives were stripping funding from the Rich­mond County Board of Health and Augusta-Richmond County Public Library, or from outside agencies Russell said “we’re not particularly required to fund.”

Agencies listed on the handout included several budgeted for $150,000 or more – mosquito control, Project Access, two museums, the Arts Council and the Downtown Development Authority.

Another option Russell cited as a way to cover the $7.9 million deficit is to reduce all department budgets on a sliding scale, based on their size, then dip into reserves for the rest.

Russell said he wanted feedback from the commissioners about which, among the options, they prefer to use in the budget that must be approved Nov. 16.

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