Contributed photo / Robert Simmons
Late in the second year of its 10-year contract with Simmons Sanitation and Recycling Service, Idaho County’s garbage system is $78,000 in the hole. The county commission is taking steps to avoid changing the even-older fee structure – and taking a harder line to local landowners.
Providing solid waste service costs the county about $127,000 per month, with the Simmons contract running $77,000 per month to cover the Camas Prairie-to-Elk City area served until 2013 by Walco, Inc. (Providing service in the Clearwater River valley costs the county about $50,000 per month.)
The costs are to be covered through a user fee system that has been in place for about seven years. Since 2007, the county has divided fee payers into three categories: residential, commercial and agricultural. Residential and agricultural users have paid $198 annually, while other businesses have paid double that amount.
This overarching fee structure has not been changed. Until recently, the county would try to bill the ag waste fee to lease-holders rather than landowners – and found that some paper trails would dead-end, meaning some bills would never get paid. Now, the county is billing ag landowners and leaving it up to them to seek payment from their tenants.
“This way, we don’t have to try to police it,” commission chairman, James Rockwell, said. “Previously, we’d go try and find the tenants…but there was no requirement to record the lease. It could get sub-leased any number of times…There are legitimate reasons for corporations and we don’t care to sort out who might lease to who. We just need to make sure the fee gets paid.”
If two bills are sent and the recipients both belong to a single entity – an example assessor James Zehner posed to the commission on Nov. 18 – the commission will ask the recipients for proof that it is the same billing.
Starting next year, the county will cancel the ag waste fee for those who disclaim the “agricultural business” property tax exemption – but in light of the tradeoffs, it is likely that few would choose to do so.
“If somebody tells the Secretary of State they want the ag exemption for their land…for tax purposes it could be valued at $25 per acre, $50 per acre,” Rockwell noted. “Now, if someone wants to say, ‘No, we’re not an ag business,’ then that land could be valued for tax purposes in the thousands of dollars per acre.”
On Monday, Dec. 1, Zehner said that even under the exemption, good crop land can be valued for tax purposes at as much as $500-$800 per acre.
Establishing the existing solid waste fee structure was one of the first tough votes commissioner Skip Brandt faced during his early years on the board. The commission has faced considerable public criticism for its handling of solid waste issues in recent years – notably including a lawsuit Walco filed in 2013, which contested the contract awarded to Simmons, which was dismissed in June. Both Brandt and Rockwell strongly support the existing “user fee” model, under which solid waste fees are set aside strictly to provide solid waste service.
“It’s a utility and utilities work best when everybody pays to make it available,” Rockwell said, likening garbage service to a fire department in that although some may say they will never use it, everyone in the area counts on the service to be provided whenever it’s needed.