Financing change could signal trash changes in DeKalb

DeKalb County officials touted a recent decision to use in-house financing to expand its landfill as a wise choice that will save taxpayers money on borrowing costs.

But the move also means residents, accustomed to some of the most extensive garbage collection in metro Atlanta, can expect service cuts — dropping to once-weekly collection from the current pickup several days a week — perhaps as soon as next year.

“I’m not suggesting we just flip a switch and change,” Commissioner Jeff Rader said. “But we have to deal with a way to reduce costs because we know we will be hard-pressed to make the case to raise rates.”

DeKalb residents pay the lowest fee in metro Atlanta for curbside service. The county provides trash pickup twice a week and collection of yard waste once a week. For that, with no limit on how much can be set out, residential properties pay a $265 annual fee, separate from property taxes.

Residents in neighboring Gwinnett County, by contrast, pay $218 per year for up to 96 gallons of trash collected once a week, plus an additional $120 annually for weekly pickup of as much as 12 bags of yard waste.

Rader first pushed the idea of cutting back service more than a year ago. The administration put off the idea, though, after residents complained about losing their gold-star service.

“We don’t need to smell our garbage when we go out to enjoy our yards or water our plants,” said Michael Sharbaugh, a graduate student at Georgia State University who lives near Decatur with his wife. “We just have to pick up household trash twice a week.”

DeKalb has been able to offer the high-level service and still keep prices down largely because it owns its Seminole Road landfill. But crews are now expanding the landfill by one “cell,” enough area to accommodate garbage for at least another seven years.

The county would typically pay for such work by raising fees, which last went up in 2006. But after raising the tax rate 26 percent last year, the county planned instead to borrow through the public bond market this year to pay the $12.69 million cost.

The problem: Ratings agencies concluded the county’s sanitation fund doesn’t have enough money saved for future medical costs, signaling that DeKalb wouldn’t get a good interest rate on the debt.

Ted Rhinehart, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure, worked with county financial issues to come up with the alternative financing that the County Commission recently approved.

Under it, the county’s Department of Watershed Management will pay for $6 million of the construction, then receive free use of the landfill for its waste — usually a $2 million annual cost — until it recoups its money. The sanitation fund can cover the rest of the cost with its own capital budget and by leasing, not buying, vehicles.

With the financing done, Rhinehart said the county can focus on finishing the expansion by year’s end. Then, it plans to promote recycling and gradually explore service changes.

“I don’t think anyone is dragging their feet,” Rhinehart said. “But I think we have to do it a step at a time. To do all these pieces without raising rates and continuing top-notch service for 600,000 people every single day is not a battleship we can turn very easily.”

Commissioners still have pledged to continue pushing for a plan to reduce service.

Just what those changes will look like, though, are uncertain. The plan floated last year called for once-weekly collection of trash and recycling, with a second day for yard waste pickup.

Rhinehart said his office is also looking at a possible switch to automated collection, with specialized trucks used to tip large carts into the trash trucks. That could allow for gradually eliminating jobs in the department.

Such changes might have more public support this time around. Some residents say they end up skipping the second collection in a week because they haven’t generated enough trash. For them, once-weekly pickup is still better than paying more for a service they already don’t use all the time.

“People are just complaining because it’s what they’re used to,” said Rhonda Moore, a civil engineer who lives near Stone Mountain. “Really, garbage is the least of our worries, as long as they’re still coming to get it.”