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Commissioners to mull sensitive landfill issue

March 30, 2013

Howard County commissioners will hold a special meeting Monday to discuss the fallout of Tuesday night's meeting of the Big Spring City Council, which had Commissioner Jimmie Long going toe-to-toe with Mayor Tommy Duncan regarding fiscal support from the county in the opening of a new municipal landfill.

The question currently before county commissioners is whether or not to help the city fund the purchase of land and construction of a new landfill, and, if so, how much money is appropriate.

According to Duncan, the city is asking the county to fund one-third of the cost of the opening of the first new landfill cell, estimated at $5 million. The city is also asking the county to open its coffers again in approximately seven years to open another cell, with the cost currently estimated at $1.6 million per cell for the county.

However, county officials are saying the negotiations have recently turned into an ultimatum delivered by Duncan, with county residents' ability to use the new facility being used as leverage.

“What Commissioner (Jimmie) Long told the council Tuesday about being given an ultimatum in December is 100-percent true,” County Judge Mark Barr said. “The mayor (Duncan) told Commissioner (John) Cline the county would have to pay the $1.6 million or county residents would not be allowed to use the city landfill. Commissioner Cline even asked him to repeat it back to him, so there wasn't a misunderstanding regarding what the city was proposing.”

Unfortunately, the county has no way to pay the $1.6 million until it goes through its budgetary process later this year, according to Barr, and even then, the funding could come at a heavy price.

“To cover the $1.6 million — plus the increase the city is asking us to make for ambulance service — we'd have to go up more than 4 cents on the tax rate,” Barr said. “If things go the way we believe they will with the tax rate, that would put us at least 2 cents over the rollback rate.

“Raising the tax rate is bad enough, however, if we go above the tax rate and a petition gets started and is successful, the tax rate will get pushed back to the effective rate, which will mean a huge loss in tax revenue for the county. Not only would we be unable to help with the landfill, we wouldn't be able to make repairs to county roads or give any kind of employee raises. It's a huge risk.”

Barr said the biggest problem facing the commissioners court right now is a lack of information.

“We're willing to negotiate, but up until now we haven't been given any hard numbers to look at,” Barr said. “We don't have enough information in front of us to make an intelligent decision in this matter.”

Barr said Interim City Manager Todd Darden has assured him the city will provide county officials with whatever information they need.

“If Todd says he'll get us the numbers, then I believe he will,” Barr said. “Until we get them, though, there isn't much we can do.”

Barr said allegations from Duncan and city officials that negotiations between the two government entities had been ongoing for a year to a year-and-a-half are untrue.

Tempers flared Tuesday as the city council approved first reading of a resolution authorizing the city manager or his designee to enter into an inter-local agreement with Howard County to provide for sharing of the costs of land acquisition, permitting, operation, ownership, closure and post closure of a new municipal landfill.

Prior to the vote, Long asked to address the council, asking city officials to continue negotiations before laying down what he called an obvious ultimatum.

“We do want to work with the city,” Long told the council. “We want to work and come up with a good solution that is fair for the people within the city limits and outside of the city limits. I do believe we can strategically come up — not with just one option — with a master plan that will benefit both of those (sets of taxpayers) … Do I have the solution? No. But I do have some ideas, which are more than, 'It's this way or the highway.' I feel like we need to continue those open door discussions, and on more than just the operating side of the landfill.”

Duncan apologized, saying he didn't intend for his statement to be taken as an ultimatum or as “my way or the highway,” and was simply “trying to get things moving.”

“At some point, Mr. Long, you come to a point where you go to buy a car from your neighbor, and you love your neighbor and you're trying to work out a deal,” Duncan said. “At some point it comes down to, if you want to buy this car, you have to pay this much money. In my opinion, we're very, very close to that point and I saw no movement on negotiations for the past several months.

“When we started the landfill committee, we included County Judge Barr to make sure there was county input. We've done everything we can to open the door and my intent was to say, 'We are a team, let's work together. My house is your house, come help me pay the rent and we'll all live together.' That's what we're doing with the county.”

Duncan offered to meet with county representatives in hopes of being able to do away with the resolution — or amend it — before it goes to the council for a final vote in approximately two weeks.

Monday's special meeting is to begin at 10 a.m. in the old commissioners courtroom, located on the second floor of the county courthouse.

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