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Never mind: Island County recycling program headed for dump

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson addresses Kent Kovalenko, district manager for Island Disposal’s parent company, Waste Connections, at the board’s work session this week. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson addresses Kent Kovalenko, district manager for Island Disposal’s parent company, Waste Connections, at the board’s work session this week.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

The final nail in the coffin of mandatory curbside recycling hasn’t been hammered yet but it’s looking more and more like it’s just a matter of time.

Republican Island County commissioners Kelly Emerson and Jill Johnson agreed on Wednesday to begin the process to rescind a level of service ordinance that was passed in December and begin discussions for a voluntary curbside program instead.

The law adopted last year forces the county’s franchised hauler, Island Disposal, to begin offering twice monthly curbside recycling service to residents in Langley and rural areas of Whidbey Island.

Although there is no requirement to become or remain an Island Disposal customer, participation is mandatory for all customers who subscribe to trash service.

That lack of flexibility has been the mortar for the main tenets for the program; affordability for customers and the guarantee for enough participation to hike the county’s recycling rate from its current 32 percent to the state’s 50 percent.

But it’s also been one of the primary sticking points of critics since the plan was first unveiled in 2007. And although the issue has seen years of discussion, in the end, it’s demonstrating itself to be an insurmountable obstacle for some decision makers.

“At this stage in the economy … I’m uncomfortable foundationally with saying it’s an all or nothing deal,” Johnson said.

A freshman commissioner who took office in January and something of a swing vote on the board, Johnson said she is loath to force an estimated 9,000 customers to pay for a “program of want before taking care of responsibilities of need.”

Law and justice officials are crying out for additional funding and there is a discussion going on now to put a sales or property tax on a ballot sometime this year.

The curbside ordinance was passed in a 2-0 vote by Democratic commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola, who was unseated by Johnson in November.

Tea Party Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson abstained from the vote at the time but recently asked that the issue be rehashed, claiming the decision remains unpopular with the public.

“In fact, I don’t think I’m hearing any support whatsoever,” Emerson said.

“Rather than have this be a last minute decision by an old board … we should put it out and see if it’s what the people really wanted,” she said. “I would be willing to put this to a vote of the people as well.”

Shaking her head, Price Johnson called it an “odd concept” to put a service provided by a private business out for a vote of the people. She also disputed Emerson’s assertions about the program’s unpopularity, saying there has been an “even response” from constituents.

“It’s not an unusual thing for county government for people to object,” Price Johnson said. “You often don’t hear the ‘atta-boys’ for the things that people agree with. What they do is sit back and if you’re doing what it is they want you to do, they often don’t respond.”

Commissioner Johnson said she disagreed that Island Disposal is just a private business. It’s the county’s franchised hauler and is regulated by the state, which puts it in a different arena,” she said.

She made it clear that while she is against a mandatory program, she would not be opposed to one that’s voluntary. Island Disposal estimated early last year the cost would be about $22, roughly twice the $11.60 the hauler quoted for the mandatory service.

Kent Kovalenko, district manager for Island Disposal’s parent company, Waste Connections, was in attendance Wednesday. He reminded the board that the county twice asked for proposals from industry leaders and they didn’t respond for a very simple reason.

“It’s a bad business model,” Kovalenko said.

He said it was a matter of risk as a mandatory program guarantees a certain amount of revenue where a voluntary service does not.

“If you’re so willing to push this program, you guys want to write the check?” he said.

Johnson, the former director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, was quick to argue that risk is a part of business.

“No business is guaranteed revenue,” she said. “You’re asking the county to be your safety net so that your business doesn’t lose money.”

Kovalenko said it’s not that simple, citing state regulation of rates and the possible ramifications that might have on customer participation. He said an ordinance had already been passed so “why not just let the people decide for themselves whether they want it or not.”

In the end, the board elected not to put the issue on a ballot. The fate of a voluntary program remains unclear but Johnson and Emerson did agree to move forward with the process to repeal the existing level of service ordinance.

A public hearing is required but the meeting has yet to be scheduled.

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