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County debates high garbage rates

Hubbard County officials are concerned that lack of competition and state taxes results in local residents paying one of the highest garbage rates in Minnesota. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Landfills throughout Minnesota have closed and waste merchants are becoming scarce, so Hubbard County recently engaged in what commissioners called a futile effort.

They set the price of what taxpayers will fork out to ship off our garbage.

Mixed municipal solid waste will fetch a market price of $69.86 per ton.

That was the price solid waste superintendent Vern Massie recommended.

But that only sparked the beginning of a debate about monopolization, taxes and the state of Minnesota.

Hubbard County pays tax rates of 9.75 percent for residential garbage and 17 percent per ton of commercial garbage.

Board chair Lyle Robinson railed that the county was paying state tax on Waste Management labor, gas and other items the state should not require it to. Commissioners noted Hubbard County has the "highest tax rate in the state."

Massie said WM's rates go up about 5 percent every year even though the county's waste tonnage has shrunk to 500 tons a year, which is about the same tonnage sent to Minneapolis recyclers.

"We're paying to get rid of it and we're paying a tax on it," Massie told the county board Sept. 15.

And as the county begins to renegotiate a new waste contract, it is facing little choices.

"The state in its infinite wisdom years ago passed that we have to pay 9.75 (percent tax) on residential garbage and 17 percent on commercial garbage," Massie explained.

Doing some quick math, commissioner Dick Devine complained that the county was, "paying $120,000 in hidden taxes" to the state for disposing of its garbage.

"The county pays that," Massie said. "We calculate out how much we get residential and commercial and we pay the state that. But every year by Nov. 1 we're supposed to establish the market price and the last time we did it was '97. For hauling away our garbage."

In 1997 that market price was $52.40 per ton, Massie said.

"The state wants us to check around and make sure we're getting, I guess, the lowest price," Massie said. "But they've eliminated so many places there's no competition. You get the best price you can where you're at."

In figuring out that price, Massie averaged the last six months of 2009 and the first six months of 2010.

"We divided that by the tonnage shipped to them and that gave us our market disposal price," Massie said. "We ship it to a huge landfill in Gwinner, N.D."

"There's total dependence on Waste Management," Devine complained of the Houston-based company. "They own the landfills, they own the trucks, nobody competes with them.

Waste Management's Minnesota division head, Julie Ketchum, disagreed.

"WM doesn't control all of the pick up in Hubbard County," she said in an e-mail. "Waste Management has very little business in terms of collection of trash.

"WM does own the landfill that accepts waste from the Hubbard County transfer station and we believe that our rates are competitive," she indicated.

"All of WM landfills meet or exceed state and federal regulations that are protective of the environment.  WM operates and maintains all of our landfills in accordance with state and federal regulations."

But commissioners say trucking Hubbard County's garbage to Gwinner, a small town south of Fargo, is costly.

Under a state plan that began to close unlined landfills in 1994, 112 sites were voluntarily closed because the cost of compliance with new state and federal requirements was too prohibitive for the landfills to stay open.

But Ketchum said Waste Management "currently has no plans to open a landfill in NW Minnesota."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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