It’s settled. The White Salmon City Council on Jan. 2 affirmed its decision to privatize garbage collection in the city limits by authorizing a letter to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC) that asks the state agency to assign a certificated vendor to take over the city’s service area.
In addition, the council approved an ordinance repealing the city’s authority to collect and dispose of its residents’ and businesses’ solid waste and dissolving the Refuse Department; an amendment to the nuisance ordinance that makes garbage collection a requirement; and a revision to the utility ordinance that enables the city to levy and collect a 6 percent utility tax on private garbage collection services.
Councilors George Rau, Bill Werst, Allan Wolf, and Kimberly Hoppus met in special session on Jan. 2 with Mayor David Poucher and city administrative staff to discuss and act on these agenda items, which the council carried over from the Dec. 18, 2013 council meeting. The special session lasted a half hour, according to meeting minutes.
The special meeting gave Hop-pus, a new City Councilor, an opp-ortunity to cast her first votes. “It felt good to have a tangible and important impact on our community,” Hoppus said in an e-mail re-sponse to a reporter’s questions. “Regarding the sanitation issue, I am relieved the city will eliminate the unsustainable garbage operation and transition to a more cost-effective service for the city.”
Rau noted during the meeting that the city Budget Committee analyzed the Refuse Department budget inside and out last year, looking for ways to make maintenance and operation of the department sustainable. “We were at a point where we needed to make a decision and the recommendation was to cut the losses rather than continuing to in-crease the rates,” he said.
The WUTC received the city’s opt-out petition on Jan. 7 from City Attorney Ken Woodrich. The letter stated the city’s “decision to reverse its election to exercise authority under [state law] and to allow the WUTC to assume authority to regulate solid waste collection within the city limits beginning March 1, 2014.”
Penny Ingram, a regulatory analyst with the WUTC’s Solid Waste Division, told The Enterprise a certificated waste collection company with proper authority to provide the service, Republic Services of Klickitat County, “is preparing as we speak to take back the territory.”
White Salmon currently has 908 garbage customers (831 residential and 77 commercial/business acc-ounts). The city charges a base residential rate of $15 a month for gar-bage service, plus $1 a month per can that goes into a garbage can replacement reserve fund. Since 2010, though, the Refuse Depart-ment’s fortunes have been declining. Since 2009, the department’s ending cash balance — the amount of money it has on hand at the beginning of each new fiscal year — has decreased every year. It’s gone from $62,429 in 2009 to $25,595 in 2010, to $17,965 in 2011, to $12,914 in 2012, to $3,148 at the end of 2013. The outlook for 2014 is gloomier. City finance managers anticipated the Refuse Department, over an entire year, would spend around $338,501 and run a deficit of about $63,586 without additional revenue to offset expenditures. Major ex-penses for the department include personnel, payment of tipping fees at the Dallesport Transfer Station, and payment of a 12 percent internal utility tax to the city General Fund.
“Even when we take into consideration the reserve accounts, which are to pay for future capital equipment, the ending cash is still decreasing year over year when it should be increasing,” said City Clerk/Treasurer Leana Johnson.
The council first made the decision to transfer the city’s management authority over solid waste collection and disposal to the WUTC on Dec. 4, 2013. The letter received by the WUTC on Jan. 7 calls on the WUTC to assign a vendor to the service area currently under the city’s Refuse Department. The WUTC had 45 days from the day it received the letter to complete the assignment process.
According to a service area map on the WUTC Web site, the city’s service area falls under a certificate of public convenience and necessity held by Republic Services of Klickitat County (formerly Tri-County Disposal and Allied Waste Services), the primary garbage collection and disposal service in the county.
In the meantime, Johnson is winding up the Refuse Department’s affairs in preparation for the transition to a private vendor. Any equipment the City Council deems unneeded or unwanted must be surplussed by resolution. The council then must set a date to collect sealed bids or conduct a silent auction for the surplussed property. Johnson said the council may choose to set minimum amounts, or reserve prices, on the items being offered.
“The city may also use an online auction service such as Property room.com to handle the auction, but the end result is the same: The items will go to the highest bidder,” Johnson noted.
Cash left over from the closing of the Refuse Department will go into the city’s General Fund. Johnson said the majority of the remaining funds ($132,515) will be transferred into a newly created General Government Reserve Fund and only available for expenditure per the procedure outlined in the ordinance that created the fund.
“It’s not for recurring costs, general operating costs, or planned capital items,” Johnson said regarding the use of the new reserve fund.
Johnson said $30,000 in the General Government Reserve Fund will be loaned to the Street Fund as an interfund loan, if necessary, to balance the Street Fund budget. Another $60,000 will be deposited into the General Fund to bridge the difference between the ending cash balance and what the city’s financial policy requires.
“In the policy, the city has until 2015 to reach an ending cash balance of 10 percent of operating expenses,” Johnson said. “This transfer allows the city to reach the goal earlier than anticipated.”
A General Government Reserve Fund will operate as kind of a rainy day fund for covering unanticipated expenses. In 2011 and 2012, for example, the city spent more than $100,000 to repair a retaining wall on private property on the south side of Jewett Boulevard that had washed out and created a public safety hazard.
Monies loaned from the reserve fund would have to be paid back within five years, at a minimum interest rate of 2 percent above the Local Government Investment Pool earnings.