By Sarah Pridgeon
Four out of the five entities in Crook County are now at least tentatively willing to put the question of a mill levy for a solid waste district to the public vote. At a meeting on Monday night in the Sundance council chambers, the majority of the County Commissioners expressed willingness to move forward, while a Pine Haven councilman confirmed his town may be ready to come on board.
Kathy Lenz, Clerk Treasurer, explained the current situation in Sundance. Moorcroft has been gracious enough to extend the city’s contract for hauling until June, she said.
“I think they have a tough decision ahead of them whether they’ll let us keep coming,” she said.
Sundance will keep its transfer station and is hoping to maintain its construction and debris pit for white metals, rubble and other clean waste.
Councilman Owen Mathews noted that Moorcroft has 150 acres available for a lined pit that has been designated as a potential regional site. Heath Turbiville of HDR Engineering, who performed a study into possibilities for the Crook County Solid Waste Joint Powers Board and also serves as town engineer for Moorcroft, confirmed the groundwater is deep and the site is likely to be approved.
Turbiville also reminded officials that, according to the figures he put together, a five acre pit would last over 100 years if it was taking only waste from Crook County.
Councilman Dick Claar stated that, according to the initial figures, the “worst case scenario” for Moorcroft would be an increase of $21 per month for individual account rates if the project only involves Sundance and Moorcroft with a two-acre pit. He compared this to the expected increase of $18 per month for each account if the town hauls to Gillette and said this might be a little lower, but Moorcroft would not be in control of where those rates stood in 20 years.
Sundance is bringing less garbage to the landfill than Moorcroft, said Turbiville; he estimated an increase per account between $10.50 and $16 for Sundance.
Representatives from the two cities agreed that it’s important to have a destination close enough to keep rates reasonable for the public – otherwise, you end up with an illegal dumping problem.
“What we want is a solution that’s long term and we feel we have…control,” said Mathews.
Claar noted that any additional contribution from outside Moorcroft and Sundance will serve to lower the expected fee increases.
“When we hit people with a garbage increase, it hits the most vulnerable people,” said Brooks, stressing his desire to ensure trash fees remain as affordable as possible for his constituents.
Councilman John Cook expressed that Pine Haven has requests for proposals out to find out what the town will need to pay after June 31, when it can no longer haul to Moorcroft, and is now in a position to consider entering into the push for a solid waste district.
“At this point, we’re ready to join in with Sundance and Moorcroft,” he said.
Hulett was the only Crook County entity not represented at the meeting.
All three county commissioners and County Clerk Linda Fritz attended the meeting. Several people spoke in support of a district that includes county residents, who represent over half the population.
“I’m fine to put it out for a vote for a district, but I can probably guarantee that it won’t pass, so you need to have a plan B,” said Commissioner Jeanne Whalen, asking what that back-up plan will be.
“We haul to Campbell County,” said Claar. “And raise the rates,” added Mathews.
Commissioner Kelly Dennis shared his opinion that he would like to see ag land (not including the farmstead) be exempt from a mill levy and not treated like a house in town. If that’s possible, he said, a district is something he thinks could probably work.
“I would support putting it to the voters with that stipulation,” he stated.
Representative Tyler Lindholm warned that a district cannot exempt ag land on the basis that this would be creating a different tax class and would be deemed unconstitutional, but said the mill levy would still be much reduced for ag land as it would still be assessed at a lower rate, as it is for property tax.
“To me, the mill levy needs to be for construction only. It can’t be for operation because, if you have to operate with that, something is wrong,” Dennis added.
Commissioner Steve Stahla, first commenting that he thinks people should pick one plan rather than having two or three, asked why it’s necessary to have a district at all. As Sundance is eligible for a 45 percent match rural development grant, could not the city simply do that without all the extra steps?
Turbiville answered that the district board will make decisions about how the district works and will also ensure the funding is distributed evenly across the entities, not just the responsibility of Sundance. Lenz added that Sundance is also unlikely to be able to ask for a grant for property in Moorcroft.
Ed Wagoner and Ted Ertman of the Weston County Solid Waste District attended the meeting to share their own experience of forming a district and passing a mill levy on the ballot. At the present time, said Wagoner, the district is considering a promising piece of land to acquire; if soil testing is successful, they hope to move forward to the initial design of a landfill.
According to Ertman, the district is borrowing against the mill levy with a low interest loan so that it is not waiting ten years to get the study started. The idea, he said, was that the mill levy would pay only for construction of a landfill and would not pay for running it.
Realistically, said Wagoner, the district is looking at a “best case scenario” of three to five years to get a lined landfill open. The biggest problem, said Ertman, has been finding at least 40 acres, and preferably 160, that meet the many restrictions, such as on proximity to an airport or water well.
“It would be great, a regional dump, but you’ve got to find a piece of land,” he said.
The situation in Weston County also mirrors that of Crook County in the looming deadlines for its still-functioning landfills; Ertman told gathered officials that the Newcastle dump has one cell left and the city has been given an extension to fill that dump on its permit. Superintendent Mark Lindstrom confirmed that Upton will cease taking municipal solid waste by the end of next year and will then direct haul to Belle Fourche or one of two other possibilities he is investigating.
Answering a query about the price tag from Councilman Joe Wilson, Sundance, Wagoner and Ertman said they are expecting something in the region of $1.5-2 million to construct a transfer station and $6 million to open the lined landfill. The district has discussed options such as a baler to compact the trash and lining the bales instead of the pit; these options and more will affect the final cost.
“Compaction I think is the key to any landfill – trying to get as much stuff as you can into that hole,” said Ertman. Mathews agreed, noting that it affects everything from pounds per foot of space to making sure the wind doesn’t carry the garbage away.
Brooks suggested that teaming up with Weston County, with a joint powers board using the two counties as its boundaries, could be advantageous – though that’s a question for the lawyers, he added.
Campbell County being the most obvious regional destination outside the two counties, a number of both Crook and Weston County entities have looked into the possibility of a contract to that end. Lindstrom said Upton has had no luck and Brooks agreed it has proven more difficult than expected.
“We’ve got a letter saying they’re really interested but everyone’s saying that’s like a U.F.O. – there have been sightings, but nobody has got their garbage there yet,” he joked.
Dick Claar, Moorcroft Councilman, said he had been told Pine Haven received a letter from Campbell County stating that individuals will not be able to haul their personal garbage to Gillette without a county 17 plate on their vehicle or proof of residency.
Turning attention to Belle Fourche, Brooks reiterated his view that, should something go wrong while hauling or an environmental issue affect that landfill, Crook County’s entities will be on the hook.
“If something goes bad in Belle Fourche, you’re going to be in court in South Dakota,” he said, telling the gathered officials that this is an opinion he was given by the Attorney General’s Office.
Ertman agreed, recounting two stories from his own experience of times when the entities hauling to a dump were held liable for issues that took place after the garbage had been dumped.
How exactly a solid waste district would function has yet to be determined – for decisions to be made, a district must first be formed. Fritz explained that the municipalities will need to request by letter to form a district with a two thirds majority represented.
If the commissioners form the district, the proposed boundaries must be approved by the Department of Revenue and Assessor’s Office within 60 days and the district can then be formed with up to nine board members. August 28 would be the deadline to present a request to put the mill levy on the ballot.
Councilwoman Sheryl Klocker, Sundance, opened a discussion on whether it would be better to fund the district through a mill levy or a fee per month of around $65 that, according to statute, it can charge for the privilege of using the landfill. A gate fee could then be charged for outside accounts of around $75; this, she said, could avoid the issue of taxing ag land.
Wagoner noted that a huge portion of the mill levy will come from such places as mines, the Oneok pipeline and the power companies – the compressor station in Crook County alone will generate enough dollars to offset hundreds of acres of ag land, he said, and that was something the district had to educate the people of Weston County about.
With three mills, said Turbiville, a customer in town could expect to pay $28 per month, which would pay for development, operation, closure and post closure. Or, he said, the amount of mills could be lower and customers would also pay a tipping fee; the towns will still be responsible for collection and transportation either way.
Brooks concluded the gathering by thanking everyone for coming to the table and expressing his hope that, if the entities bring a letter to the commissioners asking for a district, they will support it.