Is the Rappahannock trash contract good for Page? Yes, no and maybe

Our “Question of the Week” last week asked: “Is the Rappahannock trash contract good for Page County?” The survey results were scattered — 22 percent said yes, 50 percent voted no, and 28 percent were undecided.

All of them have valid reasons for their responses. The 10-year Rappahannock waste disposal contract being considered by the Page County Board of Supervisors has positive elements that should benefit the county in the short term and other aspects that should be concerning in the long term.

First, let’s deal with a few basics and dispel some rumors. Some county residents believe that the new contract will take up valuable airspace at the county landfill, which they believe is “getting close to full.” This is false. 

The Battle Creek Landfill is projected to have a lifespan of 58.8 years, calculated at a rate of 350 tons per day. The landfill currently averages an intake closer to 190 tons per day, which means it should last a lot longer based on current trends. The Rappahannock contract is estimated to only add about 11 tons per day.

Next, let’s consider some history. It’s understandable that some residents are against any new trash coming into the county after the long lines of tractor trailers that traveled over mountains from the east and west when Battle Creek was taking in more than 1,500 tons per day from all long the Mid-Atlantic region more than 15 years ago. At that time, Virginia ranked second only behind Pennsylvania as the largest importer of trash in the country, and Battle Creek played a part in that.

However, Page County made the decision to have a landfill versus a transfer station in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they began looking at 12 sites for a new landfill to replace the old Stanley dumping site. Every locality generates trash, and there are two basic ways to deal with it — build a landfill, or send it to someone else’s landfill. While the latter is preferable for a number of environmental reasons, building a landfill offers the opportunity to generate enough revenue from outside sources to lower (if not eliminate) the cost of dealing with our own trash.

In the early days, John Olver of Tellurian (the initial operators of the Battle Creek Landfill) convinced the supervisors at the time, that enough revenue — and profit — would be generated by the new landfill to pay for new high schools. The long-debated issue of new school construction seemed to have a financial solution, and the county moved forward. However, after the 1999 opening, a lower trash volume than expected at Battle Creek created a deficit in the contract-mandated 250 tons per day. Page taxpayers ended up paying the operator millions of dollars for trash that was never dumped. When the contract was later sold to another operator, it took another $13 million for the county to get out of the contract and take over operations at their own landfill. Taxpayers are still footing the debt service on that bill today. (And that doesn’t count what was spent on consultants and lawyers during those years.)

Now, let’s consider the current situation and the new contract. Operations are more efficient today at Battle Creek. The cost of $32 per ton to process trash a few years ago has been lowered to about $26. This creates a better net result from long-term contracts with customers like Warren County, who’s long-term deal at $33.75 per ton will be renegotiated next year.

The proposal on the table for Rappahannock County sets the tipping fee at $34 per ton. While Page County was attempting to be competitive in the waste disposal market and the rate still generates a profit, many taxpayers are wondering if the deal leaves a lot of money on the table. Per-ton tipping fees charged by surrounding localities for dumping commercial waste is as follows:

  • Albemarle — $52
  • Augusta — $45
  • Clarke — $50
  • Culpeper — $50.32
  • Frederick — $50
  • Greene — $52
  • Madison — $65
  • Page — $45
  • Rappahannock — $56
  • Rockingham — $52
  • Shenandoah — $45
  • Warren — $69

Now, we should note that comparing these rates isn’t completely an apples to apples comparison, but it’s a decent guideline. One thing we found in our research is that while everyone has to follow the same rules dictated by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, they all run their waste disposal process a little bit different. From various fees charged, different dumping limits and accommodations for county residents, various rates for various types of trash, landfills versus transfer stations, and different arrangements with haulers — they are all different and unique in their own way.

Looking at regional rates, it would appear that the $34 rate that Page is proposing to charge Rappahannock and the $33.75 negotiated with Warren years ago, are great deals for those localities — really great deals. Could Page get more for its services? A $6 per ton increase could mean another $200,000 or more for Page County over the life of the 10-year deal. Rappahannock officials reportedly have stated the new deal with Page — at $34 per ton — will save their taxpayers nearly $200,000 annually. They are currently paying Updike Industries $56 a ton to haul their trash to a Culpeper transfer station.

The Rapp deal seems even sweeter when one considers that Page will help them design and setup a convenience center near Amissville and then haul their trash to Battle Creek from there. Page had already budgeted for a new truck and will not be purchasing one just to service Rappahannock County, but the hauling agreement does create an ongoing expense to provide that service for years to come.

How will the Rapp contract affect negotiations with Warren next year?  Currently, Warren hauls their trash to Battle Creek. Will they expect Page to pick up that service next year? At what rate? Rapp would only be paying 25 cents more per ton to get hauling and disposal. (We should note that county officials are considering higher volume with the Warren contract — about 80 to 90 tons per day, versus about 10 from Rapp — and thus, more revenue.)

Some localities, like Warren, are able to use their transfer stations to generate additional revenue. While they pay Page $33.75 per ton to dump at Battle Creek, they charge local contractors $69 per ton. They still have to pay a hauling fee, but there is still plenty of room for profit — especially in a place with a lot of construction and demolition debris like Warren.

Where does Page fit in among competitors in the solid waste disposal industry? They are the cheapest deal around, and if they continue to offer hauling, the volume should increase at Battle Creek. Increasing volume will reduce costs for taxpayers to process their own trash.

But questions still remain… could we get a better deal? Are we leaving money on the table? Does offering hauling open the county up to new costs and liabilities? Can we sustain the agreement, including hauling, and still make money over the next decade? 

These and many more questions will be discussed by the board of supervisors at their next meeting on Tuesday, March 3. The Rapp trash contract was taken off the Feb. 18 agenda because two board members were unable to attend the meeting.

Currently, Page County faces many financial challenges on the horizon — schools are asking for more money to meet state mandates, the sheriff’s office wants more than a dozen new staff added as soon as possible, courthouse renovations are being planned, and a new radio system for emergency services will cost about $10 million instead of the $5 million estimated just a year ago. 

New businesses are not lining up to pay more taxes, so the alternative to fund all of these needs may be higher taxes for local property owners. When funds are scarce, every dollar counts — especially with long-term deals that lock in rates. 

Hopefully, the board of supervisors will find a reasonable solution that doesn’t short change the people of Page — and hopefully, they won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

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