BROOKSVILLE — The cost of running the Hernando County landfill is going up, and property owners are going to foot the bill.
County commissioners on Tuesday voted to raise the solid waste assessment to pay for three projects. They include expanding the county landfill by opening a new cell, finding a new way to dispose of storm water that flows through garbage at the landfill and building a fund for future storm debris removal.
The fee hasn't gone up for more than 15 years. While it will rise a bit in the next year, the fee could jump in future years.
The current fee for single family homes is $63.05. It will go to $69.40 on tax bills that come out later this year. The notice mailed to property owners said the fee would not go beyond $95 in future years — a 50 percent increase from the current fee. The commission's vote on Tuesday covered only next year’s increase.
County staff members said they included the eventual higher number so they don’t have to spend approximately $30,000 on mailings each time rate increases are proposed. But that public notice didn't sit well with residents or commissioners.
Commissioner Steve Champion said it was clear that county staffer want fees eventually to increase to $95 and that the notice was misleading. He was the sole no vote on the smaller increase and said he plans to vote no on all increases to property taxpayers this year.
The notices to property owners generated a wave of opposition. In letters to the County Commission, some suggested that the garbage pick-up fee they pay to trash hauler Republic Services should cover the landfill fees. Others complained about the recent proposed increase in garbage collection fees, which are separate from the annual fee every property owner pays for the landfill.
"I'm a retired widow on a limited income and find it difficult to maintain myself financially,'' wrote Spring Hill resident Darla Comshaw. "Is there an exemption for folks in my position?''
"The customers in Hernando County are getting ripped off, and our commissioners are not doing anything to stop it,'' wrote Spring Hill resident Elina Davis. "Why did we elect any of you if you just sit around and do nothing? We, the customers, are paying you to represent us, not stick it to us.''
Others appeared at the hearing to voice their unhappiness.
Lynn Gruber-White, president of the Ridge Manor Homeowners Association, called the notice "completely deceptive,'' because it seemed to be about a $6 increase when the county intends to increase the fee much more.
A consultant hired by the county to analyze the county's solid waste operation gave a detailed report on costs and future needs. The existing landfill cell will be filled by 2028, it said, and a new cell will cost $19 million to engineer, permit and build. The new cell would last the county another 20-30 years.
Other rising costs include recycling, which does not pay for itself, and the need for a new composting program to dispose of yard waste and other materials. Add to that the cost of sending construction debris to another facility, because the county's separate landfill for those materials will be full next year.
Commissioners in a separate vote agreed to raise tipping fees for commercial trucks that dump construction debris from $20 per ton to $45 per ton.
The county also needs to put funds away for storm debris removal, said county utilities director Gordon Onderdonk, including $300,000 next year. The county spent more than $2 million to dispose of debris after Hurricane Irma in 2017, but has been reimbursed only $148,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Jeff Rogers, county administrator.
Onderdonk also sought $317,000 to send the leachate — storm water that washes over trash at the landfill — to a separate facility for treatment. Previously, the county's nearest wastewater treatment plant handled that job, but state rules about the county's nitrate levels will prevent that in the future.
The many extra costs prompted a lengthy discussion by county commissioners already facing the potential of raising property tax rates to get out of a $10 million financial shortfall. They discussed how Hernando County’s trash collection and landfill fees compare with other places, whether incinerating garbage might be in the county's future and whether privatizing the landfill made sense.
In the final analysis, they stuck with the choice before them, the small increase for next year’s landfill fee.
At the next regular commission meeting on July 30, commissioners will consider an increase in fees charged by their waste hauler, Republic Services. After Tuesday’s discussion, and hearing nearly daily complaints about Republic's service, they anticipate another robust conversation.
Several commissioners said they want to talk about the increase in more detail, even though the Republic Services contract includes a small, annual cost-of-living increase.