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Landfill payout cause of contention

March 27, 2013

Tempers flared Tuesday night as Big Spring Mayor Tommy Duncan and Howard County Precinct 3 Commissioner Jimmie Long went toe-to-toe during the city council meeting over an alleged ultimatum delivered by the city regarding future use of a new municipal landfill.

The city and county have been locked in negotiations regarding how the county should help pay for the purchase of property and operation of a new landfill planned for the municipality in the next few years.

The 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.

The measure requires the agreement to distribute the cost of the new landfill at a ratio of one-third for Howard County to two-thirds for the city of Big Spring. It was approved by the council on a unanimous vote with District 2 Councilwoman Carmen Harbour absent at the time.

According to Duncan, the resolution was brought to the council in hopes of moving forward with the funding and eventual construction of the new landfill facility, as the time to open such a facility before the existing one is full dwindles away.

“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 (Mark) 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.”

According to Long, the role of the county in paying for the opening of a new landfill — which city officials are estimating at $5 million per cell, with three cells planned during a period of more than 20 years — has yet to be established by anyone, legally or historically.

“I don't know if the county ever went in with the city on the existing landfill and did the purchase of that,” Long said. “I don't know if Big Spring purchased that by themselves and the county came along and assisted with the operations. I feel like, if that is the case, we would be willing to help with assistance in the operations of the landfill and continue that relationship. I'm just one vote, but I feel like we could negotiate something like that, as long as you (the city) purchase that, we'll assist with the operations. That has worked all these years for county residents outside the city limits to use that facility, I don't know why that same relationship can't continue.”

Duncan said Long's unofficial offer was something he'd readily jump at if he were in the same position, as it heavily favors the county government's coffers.

“So, we will buy the house and you and I will move into it and you'll help me sweep the floor?” Duncan asked. “I would take that deal myself. What I'm saying is, if you're going to move in with me, help me pay for the house and then we'll both sweep the floor.”

Duncan's analogy obviously touched a nerve with Long, who likened the construction and operation of a new landfill to the recent construction of the Howard County Detention Center.

“Are you willing to do the same with the (county) jail?” Long asked Duncan.

“Everyone who lives in this city pays taxes toward that jail,” Duncan said. “That's a county jail. I'm a county resident and I pay taxes toward that jail.”

“And that's a city landfill,” Long said firmly.

Long and Duncan also argued over whether or not the Big Spring mayor had meant to issue an ultimatum to the county as a result of Tuesday night's vote.

“During the last meeting with you, Mr. Cline (Howard County Precinct 4 Commissioner John Cline) asked you, 'Are you saying that if we (the county) do not pay $1.6 million toward the landfill, then the county residents will not be allowed to dump their trash in the landfill?' You said, 'Absolutely, that's correct.'”

According to Duncan, he was misunderstood.

“Mr. Long, my response to you was that was said and meant the city is going to have a landfill and we would like to give you the opportunity to join us and participate in it,” Duncan fired back. “And you said, 'Does that mean we have to pay in order to use the landfill?' and I said 'yes.' That's a little different.”

The argument went back and forth countless times, with District 1 Councilman Marcus Fernandez stepping in to encourage a continuation of recent cooperative efforts between the two government agencies, the same level of cooperation that recently funded a new joint law enforcement center shared by the Big Spring Police Department and the Howard County Sheriff's Office.

“We feel that the county needs us as much as we need the county,” Fernandez said. “My question simply is, we're running out of time, so, we can sit in rooms and we all know how politicians are. We can make meetings and sit and talk and talk, but the time is running out … What we are trying to do is move forward. We're trying to vote in something that we could tell you, 'This is what we have.'

“If the county sees that as telling you to play with your baseball bat and ball or don't play, then I'm sorry if that is how we are coming. Our intention is we want to work with the county; we feel we are together on everything from fighting fires to crime to ambulance services. I thought we had a great partnership, so I'm kind of surprised of this, that we are giving you and ultimatum, so to speak.”

Long again pointed to the comments delivered by Duncan during a recent meeting between government officials.

“I agree with you, we have had great working relationships,” Long said. “I want to continue that, as well. However, we've come to a time here where it's either we fund the third or the citizens outside the city limits will not be able to use the landfill.

“We do want to work with the city. 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.”

According to Long, in order for the county to fund $1.6 million — its estimated third of the cost to purchase the land for the new facility and open it — the county will have to raise taxes approximately 20 percent, amounting to approximately 8 to 10 cents added to its tax rate.

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.

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