In Johnson County, taking out the trash is a two-player game.
Unlike most other Wyoming counties, where a single garbage-gathering organization is responsible for everything from cardboard to truck tires, Johnson County’s recycling center and its solid-waste-district-managed landfill are separate, governed by two boards with different visions for the future.
As the solid waste district works to finalize a ballot measure asking voters to extend its mill levy funding in 2020, local officials at meetings across the county are asking whether that split still makes sense.
“I feel really strongly that we’re doing the same thing,” Bill Ostheimer, recycling center joint powers board chairman, told the Bulletin in an interview this fall. “We’re all in solid waste management for the community. It’s not an either-or.”
Johnson County’s landfill currently draws one mill of funding each year, but under Wyoming statute, solid waste districts are able to request up to three. If county voters approve, it would be financially feasible to fold the recycling center, currently funded with 1% dollars, under an expanded solid waste district levy.
Operationally, the recycling center and the landfill often support one another: The more plastic and paper the center diverts, the longer the landfill’s lifespan. Last fall, landfill manager Bob Fox helped recycling center foreman Don Verger connect with new buyers and offered to share shipping space when trucks headed out of town.
The long-range goals of the citizen boards that govern the organizations, however, are currently divergent enough to make any sort of merger unlikely.
“I don’t think a marriage would be amicable,” said County Commissioner Linda Greenough, when the topic came up at a city-county elected officials breakfast meeting two weeks ago.
“One wants to bury things,” said City Councilman Wes Haskins. “The other wants to reuse them.”
Board meeting conversations throughout the fall highlighted an ideological separation.
“I wouldn’t vote for it,” said Dan Rogers, the solid waste board chairman, in a September discussion about sharing the mill. “I don’t want to be the guy who keeps saying we’re going to throw 300,000 of your dollars away.”
As commodity prices for recovered materials nosedive internationally, the recycling center is increasingly reliant on 1% funds to stay afloat. During the 2018-19 fiscal year, combined city and county funding made up more than 80% of its total budget.
In contrast, the solid waste district pays for virtually all of its day-to-day operations with money earned on per-ton tip fees – Wyoming law does not permit solid waste districts to run a financial deficit. As dictated by the terms of its current mill, the solid waste district’s tax dollars are tucked away in a savings account that currently holds about $3 million, earmarked for the landfill’s eventual closure, which Fox estimates will cost about $7 million.
Given the landfill’s current technology and equipment fleet, there should be enough space to hold the county’s trash until 2030. Then, two additional cells could be built, buying another 25 years at a cost of $1.88 million.
In fall meetings, solid waste board members regularly commented that the recycling board should cut costs, even if it meant reducing services.
“Through these tough times, you’re going to have to pick and choose what you recycle,” Fox said in September.
“There was enough of a sense from the recycle board that solid waste would just do what they wanted with recycling, and that wasn’t real palatable,” Ostheimer said a month later, explaining his board’s decision to not request a share of increased mill funding.
The landfill’s current scrap metal and composting programs are already enough to satisfy the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s requirement that solid waste districts maintain some sort of diversion program.
“There’s no negotiation right now,” said recycling board member Dean Knauer. “What do you do with the boards? How do you split up the money? They’re not even sure that anyone’s going to vote for the one mill.”
“Our mission is different, and I think that’s the crux of the problem,” Ostheimer said. “We don’t have the assurance that we will see our vision and values carried forward.”