CHAPEL HILL- A recent court case is prompting Orange County to rethink how it recycles, meaning the longtime town and county partnership may be coming to an end.
“What a shame,” said Commissioner Penny Rich, speaking at Thursday’s joint meetingbetween the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Board of County Commissioners. “We have an amazing recycling system, we have an amazing group of folks that work for us, we’re known throughout the state for the good things we do. What a shame that we’re going through this.”
A decision last December by the North Carolina Supreme Court has put Orange County’s recycling program in jeopardy, as the ruling suggests the county has no authority to charge a fee for recycling services.

“Unless the legislature considers changes to the statutes, we have to find another methodology to fund recycling, especially curbside recycling,” said County Manager Frank Clifton.

Currently, the county provides curbside recycling pick-up to about 13,000 rural residents, as well as all single-family homes and apartments in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.

The service is funded through a series of fees that are levied along with the county’s annual property tax bill. Those bills were due back in January, meaning the recycling program is fully funded for another year, but given the recent court ruling, the county will not levy the fee again unless granted permission by the General Assembly.

That means all three towns and the county have until the end of the next fiscal year in June of 2014 to come up with other options.
One possibility is for the towns and county to go their separate ways and enter into franchise agreements with private haulers. But some elected officials worry that switching from a mandatory to voluntary recycling system will lead to lower recycling rates.

Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil said that Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough are considering some type of municipal collaboration that would exclude Orange County.

“We were assuming we could get the same level of service for less cost because of our density and because of our ability to integrate the program with things like pay-as-you-throw and our other collections,” said Stancil. “For the towns now, solid waste is a big core service, so it’s a real way for us to gain some efficiency.”

Another possibility would be to create service districts and levy a countywide tax, similar to how fire districts are funded. County Manager Clifton said that’s the best option for continuing or expanding recycling services.
“The service district proposal grants the county the greatest number of options to continue all services in some form or another, and probably to justify the expansion of services that aren’t there now, because the tax would be countywide,” Clifton told elected officials. “But that would only occur if the towns opt into the process and participate. If the towns decide to do their own thing separately, then the towns wouldn’t be covered.”

A third possibility would be to create an independent solid waste authority, along the same lines as OWASA, to handle trash and recycling.

County Board Chair Barry Jacobs urged elected officials to look beyond the immediate issue and come together on a long-term solid waste plan.

“It seems like the towns and the county, although they’re speaking to one another, they’re not really planning together. And I’m really disappointed in that,” said Jacobs. “We’re talking, for instance, about a waste transfer station. Why isn’t the county part of that conversation? I don’t even think we’re welcome to be part of that conversation. Why is that? Why are we not as elected officials meeting to find solutions that are joint solutions? How are we going to have a comprehensive system if we’re meeting in separate realms? I don’t get it.”

But Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said while a shared solution sounds good, it’s in the best interest of Chapel Hill taxpayers to explore all options.

“It would be, I think, unwise for us to not at least know what the opportunity cost would be and what the trade-off would be, if we were going to continue to look at things like solid waste and recycling on a countywide basis,” said Kleinschmidt.
County commissioners will hear a full report from staff on options for future recycling funding on April 9. Both the county board and the town council agreed to reconvene a joint meeting before making any final decisions.