Shifting the culture

The recycling center accepts a variety of items, and its open front allows people to drop off recyclables when it is convenient for them.

The clock is ticking toward a July 1 deadline as the Johnson County Recycling Center’s joint powers board looks to draft ballot language that would allow the center to join the Johnson County Solid Waste District under expanded mill levy funding next year.

Recycling Center board Chairman Bill Ostheimer presented draft language to the solid waste board at its May 13 meeting. The center’s board hopes to ask voters to increase the solid waste district’s one-mill funding, up for renewal this year, to one and a half mills, with the increased revenue dedicated to the center. 

Previously, the recycling center has operated using joint city and county 1% funds, while the county’s solid waste district funding has gone to the landfill. Over the past few years, commodity prices for cardboard, plastic and glass have plummeted, decimating the center’s secondary revenue source and prompting its board to seek more stable funding. 

The annual cycle of 1% funding applications is set to become more competitive and more uncertain as the city and the county prepare for decreased sales tax and mineral tax revenues under low oil prices and reduced tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic. In meetings, some Buffalo City Council members and county commissioners have encouraged the center to pursue the half mill because the move would free up 1% revenues for other uses.

It wasn’t the first time that Ostheimer has brought the matter to the solid waste board – and, as before, the meeting ended without resolution. 

The value of a single mill is expected to decrease by about 10% in the 2021 fiscal year to just under $300,000. Solid waste board members said that they wanted to be sure that the landfill wouldn’t be on the hook for any budget shortfalls at the recycling center if the center’s proposed half-mill request proved to be insufficient.

Earlier this spring, the recycling center board approached council members and commissioners seeking additional funding to get through the year under projections that its original 1% allocation would run out before the next budget cycle. Rock-bottom cardboard prices, in particular, have exerted financial pressure on the center over the past two years, though prices have risen slightly in recent months.

“For me, it’s hard to want to combine when one’s failing,” said solid waste board chairman Dan Rogers.

Jim Gripp, also a member of the solid waste board, asked why the recycling center hasn’t solicited community donations or attempted to hold a fundraiser.

Solid waste board members also expressed concerns about whether the two boards would have to work together if they were drawing from the same funding source and which one would have final decision-making authority if there were any disputes.

“It’s gonna cost more money to run a recycling center, even with the mill,” said solid waste board member David Iverson. “I don’t think that we’re clear enough as to what the taxpayers benefit.”

According to calculations from landfill manager Bob Fox, the center diverts enough waste to extend the landfill’s lifespan by about one year for every eight years the center operates. The center is popular with area residents. Shuttered since mid-March due to concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus, the center reopened last week. Center foreman Don Verger said it has been “absolutely crazy” trying to keep up with sorting as eager users drop off recyclables they stored during the closure.

If the district began to draw the additional half mill, the dollar amount owed to Kaycee would increase proportionally. That would mean, said Commissioner Bob Perry, the county board’s liaison to the boards, that unless the recycling center shared 12% of its new mill funding with Kaycee, the landfill would have to shell out a larger portion of its revenues.

Solid waste board member Tom Ostlund expressed support for greater collaboration between the recycling center and the landfill, provided the final ballot language set up the appropriate guidelines for how funding would be allocated.

“I’m thinking combine from the standpoint of  there’s no place else (in the state) that has two entities doing the same thing in the community, right?” Ostlund said. “(Then) if cardboard is way down, we’re not gonna sell it – we’re gonna grind it up and make compost. Let’s say all of a sudden plastic went way up, then we’re gonna sell it – that way we provide a better economic model for the people of Johnson County. That cooperation just makes so much more sense.”

The discussion concluded without consensus on the matter. Ostheimer said he would work to address the solid waste board’s concerns with the county attorney’s office in a revised ballot measure.

The solid waste board decided not to schedule an additional special meeting to work on the language. Each board has one more meeting before the July 1 deadline.

Mara Abbott joined the Bulletin as Report for America corp member in 2019. She covers energy and natural resources. Mara’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Runner’s World.

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