SANTA ANA — In a move that could cut garbage rates for homeowners and businesses, the Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to work with local cities to improve the county's landfill system.
The board ordered the county's Integrated Waste Management Department to immediately begin negotiating long-term disposal contracts with cities that could reduce landfill dumping fees to pre-bankruptcy levels.
But if agreements aren't reached within 90 days, supervisors said they would seek private-sector bids for the landfill system, the first step in a possible sale of the valuable county asset.
"There is a credible effort here with the contracts that I think is doable," Supervisor Don Saltarelli said. "If we don't reach a successful conclusion, we should be prepared to seek the bids."
The system--which consists of three operating landfills in Irvine, San Juan Capistrano and Brea as well as more than 20 closed dumps--is said to be worth at least $300 million. Some officials have suggested selling it and using the proceeds to pay off bankruptcy-related debts.
But garbage haulers and city officials fear that a private operator would increase landfill dumping fees to recoup its investment.
The disposal contracts would guarantee cities a fixed dumping fee for trash collected in their communities. The county, meanwhile, would gain a steady, predictable flow of trash to its landfills.
Most Orange County cities now deposit their trash in local landfills. But when the county increased its dumping fees from $22.75 to $35 per ton last year, several cities abandoned the county facilities in favor of Los Angeles County landfills that offered lower rates. The exodus forced the Board of Supervisors to cut the dumping fee to $27.
City representatives said they would seek a fixed rate of around $22, where it was before the bankruptcy. County officials said they might push for higher fees but agreed that the fixed rates would likely be less than $27.
Supervisor William G. Steiner said the stability of disposal contracts makes more sense than competing in Southern California's volatile and highly competitive landfill market.
"The county could be held hostage to market conditions," Steiner said. "I would trade those [market] risks any day for a stable flow [of trash]. What looks good to the county in 1996 could prove to be a disaster in the future."
An independent report prepared by two specialists concluded that private firms would be interested in bidding on the landfills and that a sale is possible. The report also cautioned that a sale would require extensive environmental and regulatory reviews that could take years to complete.
The study questioned whether the county could successfully negotiate disposal contracts with municipalities, noting that previous attempts have failed.
But city officials said the prospect of a landfill sale has made them more committed to forming "partnerships" with the county.
"This is a different era. That was in the past," Newport Beach City Manager Kevin J. Murphy said. "Give us a chance to negotiate."
Supervisor Jim Silva said he remains interested in a possible landfill sale but agreed the disposal contracts should be examined first. "We have a window of opportunity that I think we should pursue," he said.