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SMITHFIELD — Once again last week, county commissioners debated whether or how to spare Johnstonians the annoying burden of having to buy a decal to use Johnston’s solid-waste convenience centers.
And once again, commissioners failed to reach a consensus.
Commissioner Tony Braswell, no fan of the decals, tried to move the county to action. “We’ve got you here,” he said, referring to Rick Proctor, the county’s director of solid waste. “We’ve got the chief financial officer here. We’ve got the county manager here. Let’s make a deal.”
But not every commissioner supports ending the decal program, and Braswell acknowledged the difficulty of convincing them otherwise. “I’ve got to get these folks from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ and then to ‘yes,’” he said. “So it’s a two-step operation.”
To jump-start the debate, Braswell suggested charging rural households an annual fee of $35 to use the convenience sites. He also called for charging every household, both rural and town, a recycling fee of $10 a year. The fees would appear on annual tax bills, no decal purchase needed.
But Commissioner Larry Wood called $35 a speculative number that might not cover convenience site operations if more people start using the sites. “Is less people going to use them?” he asked. “No, I don’t think so. More people are going to use them.”
Braswell said the county could only guess how many more people would use the convenience sites if access to them didn’t require a decal. “It’s all going to be pure speculation” until actual numbers are available, he said.
That wasn’t good enough for Wood. “How do you put a price on somebody’s tax bill on speculation? he asked.
Wood feared a $35 fee in year one could climb dramatically in subsequent years, creating the same backlash that has occurred against the decal, which stands at $100 after starting at $35.
“I don’t want to increase someone’s property tax on the hopes that I increased it enough,” Wood said.
Proctor and his staff have estimated that Johnston would need five more convenience sites to handle increased use. Wood wanted to know where the money would come from to buy land for those sites and equip them.
That answer was a little easier. Among other options, the county could borrow the money and then repay the loan with the $400,000 it now spends annually to administer the decal program, said finance officer Chad McLamb.
Commissioners Chairman Ted Godwin has long wanted to scrap the decal program, arguing that the requirement encourages Johnstonians to dump their trash roadside instead of at the landfill or a convenience site. “We need unrestricted access to take your trash and put it where it needs to be,” he said.
And he expressed frustration that Johnston maintains a decal program when other counties seem to get by without one. “Other counties do this all the time,” he said, referring to unrestricted access to trash disposal. “I don’t know why we can’t do it too.”
But Commissioner Butch Lawter wasn’t convinced that unrestricted access to convenience sites would stop people from discarding their trash by the roadside. “I ain’t buying that for a second,” he said.
Godwin acknowledged that a policy can’t change human nature. “But we’re going to change their actions because they don’t have to pay,” he said.
While no consensus emerged last week, one old idea resurfaced: Perhaps the county could contract with a private hauler or haulers to provide curbside trash pickup in rural Johnston.
“We did throw out a curbside collection program about 10 years ago,” Proctor said. “We would pick up trash and recycling from every resident in the county.”
It’s an idea worth considering, Commissioner Chad Stewart said. “Run the numbers,” he told Proctor.
A curbside program could have benefits beyond trash pickup, Proctor said. Already, many rural Johnstonians pay private haulers for curbside pickup, but in many cases, each household chooses its hauler, he noted. That means instead of one garbage truck making a weekly pass through a neighborhood, multiple trucks do, wearing down a subdivision’s streets, Proctor said.
“We have subdivisions where you have five different haulers every week,” he said. With one hauler under contract, “you decrease things like road maintenance.”