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No easy solutions to landfill problem

Superior is in a difficult situation when it comes to the cost of operating its landfill.

The landfill operation costs only $100,000 less than the city’s police department— the most costly expenditure in the city budget.

Unlike the police department budget, the landfill is on track for a $2.1 million shortfall this year despite a hefty transfer from the city’s operating budget.

“Too often that phrase gets thrown around: ‘Well it’s free right now,’” said David Yanke of Leidos Engineering, which has been analyzing the operation for several months. “Nothing’s free. There was a $944,000 transfer last year. The key thing is it’s going to get bigger. Being proactive you can get ahead of the curve.”

The engineering firm is recommending implementation of fees for service to make the landfill solvent over the next five years.

Rectifying that situation without a change in state law is impossible short of taking the issue to the voters by referendum.

After a presentation by Leidos Engineering highlighting the analysis of the landfill operation and recommendations to address the problems, the mayor and finance director gave the Council one option.

Mayor Bruce Hagen and Finance Director and Administrative Officer Jean Vito advised the Superior City Council of upcoming efforts to change the law. After all, it singles out Superior for financial hardship when the city has no alternative for raising revenue to meet the rising cost of operating the landfill. Those efforts could get underway later this month with councilor support.

That $1 million transfer interferes with the city’s ability to maintain core services such as police, fire and public works, Vito said.

All have seen cuts in recent years, particularly the public works department, which went from 56 to 27 employees.

While the city began exploring the possibility of charging a $20 monthly fee to close the gap on funding for the landfill — Leidos is recommending a fee of $16.31 per month — legislation adopted retroactively prohibits the city from implementing new fees without reducing the tax levy by the same amount the fee generates.

That leaves Superior uniquely penalized for providing the service without charging a fee, Hagen said.

Most communities in the nation have fee-based solid waste services, according to the Leidos analysis.

Later this month, Vito said city officials are hoping to meet with Secretary Richard Chandler of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and Hagen would like to meet with Secretary Cathy Stepp of the Department of Natural Resources to talk about the $1.6 million tipping fee the city pays.

That fee allows the city the “pleasure of tipping our own garbage” and pays for no service provided by the state, Hagen said.

In addition, the state is only paying about half the cost of providing the service to state-owned facilities.

Vito said she can’t guess where those discussions will go, but they are necessary because “the garbage collection component is solely punitive to Superior.”

She said while Janesville is the only other municipality in the state that owns a landfill, the city in southern Wisconsin implemented fees years ago.

“We were going to recommend implementing fees, and exactly at that time, the legislation came out,” Vito said about the budget bill that prohibited Superior from implementing fees for solid waste collection last year. “This has such a large ramification, this decision, with where we go with our general fund, whether we’re able to financially keep our landfill afloat, it’s worth more of our efforts … to go back to the state and make our plea again.”