Come clean on garbage costs
Published on 5/6/2010 by the Times Union
What is so secret about the Albany landfill's finances that Common Council members have to wonder if they know the full story?
If Mayor Jerry Jennings wants the council to authorize borrowing tens of millions of dollars over the next five years to pay for a landfill expansion, the least he could do is answer every question its members have. And if he's in a hurry, well, he should answer them in a hurry.
To be sure, if the council, particularly a minority bloc that has, for now, effectively held up the landfill expansion, doesn't like the mayor's plan, it has an obligation to propose an alternative. But without all the facts, the council can hardly be expected to rubber stamp Mr. Jennings' request.
On paper, the landfill looks like a good deal for the city. It is projected this year to cost $7 million to operate, and take in $10.5 million in tipping fees and other revenue. That's a $3.5 million profit, according to the budget.
But it's not that simple.
The mayor plans to borrow $35 million over the next five years, about $25 million of it to expand the landfill, and roughly $10 million to close the old portion. City taxpayers would be paying back the bonds long after the new landfill space is used up and money has stopped coming in.
Further, the city must also put aside $10 for every ton of waste that's dumped in the new landfill space to help pay for an $18 million restoration of land in the environmentally sensitive Pine Bush preserve. The state Department of Environmental Conservation made that a condition of the city's new landfill permit. Mr. Jennings intends to borrow to pay for that cost.
So council members have plenty of legitimate questions to ask. Just how much are city taxpayers on the hook for here?
What's the estimated impact on their future taxes? Would dump users really go elsewhere if the city raised its tipping fee to, say, $62 a ton to include the $10-a-ton environmental fee, so that it's paid for by everyone, not just Albany taxpayers?
Even if landfill users went elsewhere, wouldn't that extend the landfill's life? Is that a long-term, measurable benefit for Albany?
Would it really cost Albany, as the administration contends, $90 a ton to ship waste somewhere else if it didn't have a landfill? And if that's the case, wouldn't other landfill users face a similarly high cost? So why does the city believe they would balk at a $62 tipping fee?
What's disturbing about this tiff is that the mayor and the council, especially the six members who are asking questions, are approaching this like adversaries. This is a matter of council members doing their due diligence and trying to get all the information they need to make an informed decision.
Hardly a radical concept.
Albany Common Council members want to know if a new landfill makes financial sense.
Good move or bad, taxpayers will be on the hook for a long time to come.
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