Spending Tuesday at the Solid Waste Work Group and BoCC meetings was eye opening for us. We appreciate the work of the Solid Waste Group and the Board's challenge to contain costs. Yet with the landfill closing, we see a crisis in the making and a real opportunity for change:
Solid Waste Workgroup
The consultant-led Solid Waste Work Group started years before the economic downturn hit Orange County. On Tuesday it became clear that many ideas won't work, such as: (1) pay to throw fees which are not supported by the towns; (2) rural waste collection franchises which offer little if any potential to improve service or reduce costs; (3) convenience center upgrades -- at a million dollars per center - would be difficult to justify since "it ain't broke" -- even with the reduced hours.
The town leaders weighed in on cost equity and agreed that convenience centers serve everyone and are not the platform to explore rural/urban inequities. This adds to our growing suspicion that the focus of this workgroup is no longer relevant.
The consultants are continuing to work, at our expense, to shape recommendations for expensive operational and capital investments that we don't need and cannot afford. Real improvements can be achieved with routine process and scheduling changes. For us, this is jaw-dropping given the hard work we are doing to keep the Bradshaw Quarry facility open.
During the work group meeting, Commissioner Jacobs made some good suggestions for supersized and smaller community centers - a simple concept that could easily be modeled and analyzed by staff. He added that improving recycling alone be held as the priority to drive improvements. It's easy to agree, but we would like to hear more detail.
We fear that what lies ahead is a confusing proposal which will recommend unnecessary and heavy handed investments in curbside services and convenience centers. You'll be told that these investments are part of the county's plan to achieve 61% recycling rates - and be made to feel that a vote against the proposal will be a vote against recycling. There will be no relevant facts, costs, or alternatives included - nor will there be any accountability for results.
We respectfully ask that the board consider disbanding the workgroup and ask staff to continue their good work to find and test creative ideas to improve recycling recovery. Separately, we suggest that a staff analyst prepare a 5-10 year investment plan showing a couple of options for convenience center improvements. There's no rush since we also ask that the board place a moratorium on solid waste infrastructure investments until the transfer station is completed, routes are established, and the economics of the new WTS and closing the landfill are understood.
The workgroup illustrates broader, systemic issues that appear to be bloating the county's infrastructure and costs. In this case, the county has engaged several consulting firms (including Olver) and roughly 15 public officials for years to discuss what appears to be routine planning and operational issues.
How much time and money is being spent on work groups, task forces and paid consultants to plan services that we don't need and can't afford? Can anything be done to encourage fiscal constraint among the county staff - not small budget cuts, but a serious overhaul of priorities, projects and values? If solid waste is any example, this could be a great way to cut costs and reduce staff workloads without impacting services.
We know you face many mission-critical challenges that take time and money to resolve. Why not terminate or defer projects that are not essential - at least for the foreseeable future. Release all the consultants. Use and develop the skills of the staff whose jobs you worked hard to protect.
Fewer projects, measured results and clear accountability could work wonders for our "wasteline" and provide reassurance to all citizens that our taxes (and fees) are being well spent.
We hope that citizen input, including our survey and other communications, will help you manage priorities and spending. We have agreed to present survey results to the Solid Waste Work Group in November. Plus we plan to host one or two public forums. The Board, the county manager and staff will be invited to attend. The survey results will be informative --- but not necessary to proceed with the actions suggested here.
Please appreciate that our comments are not meant to be critical of the county staff - many of whom are talented and committed professionals. Actually it's quite the reverse. We'd like to see staff contribute more.
Given the leadership changes over the last year, we see an unprecedented opportunity for change. Let's take it.