Jumping Through Hoops, or When Planning is a Joke
On Tuesday the County Council will have a public hearing, and most likely adopt, a new Comprehensive Solid & Hazardous Waste Management Plan for the county and all the cities (click here to download). While garbage and recycling in this county represents tens of millions of dollars there has been no public outreach to find out what people want, and there have been no recent surveys to find out how well the system works or if it could be more cost effective. In fact we don't even know how much recycling we do around here, or where the collected materials go.
On Tuesday our Public Works Department hopes no one shows up and that the Council just passes this so they don't have to think about recycling and garbage any more for a few years. This plan was due years ago, but because of lack of priority, lack of care and lack of trained solid waste staff it drug on past the point that those who may have cared to begin with even realize it is now up for adoption. And it better pass or our Public Works Department is really in trouble since as of May the position for the one Solid Waste employee they have is being eliminated, and the responsibility for all the garbage collection, recycling and hazardous waste in the county will be in the hands of a Public Works secretary (that's not mentioned in the Plan).
Most plans that the Council adopts contain clear goals, objectives, data analysis, specific programs, priorities, measurable accomplishments and budgets. There is none of that in this plan. It is just a compilation of good sounding ideas thrown together with no clear idea of what the emphasis is, how it will be implemented or paid for, or how to know if anything has been successful. It is not a plan it is a list of various ideas and factoids cut and pasted from various other documents for the purpose of meeting some planning requirement. Nothing to get excited about, or hang your hat on, or to hold anyone accountable for.
Perhaps some specifics will help illustrate my point:
The highest goal of any solid or hazardous waste management program is always to implement programs that prevent waste from being generated. Back in the early 90s Whatcom County won many state and national awards for these types of programs. In this Plan it states:
“This plan assumes that there is, and will continue to be, public support for waste and pollution prevention programs. Therefore it calls for pollution prevention and waste prevention programs for both solid waste and moderate risk wastes.”
That sounds pretty good, except that there are no such programs described in the Plan and what is there are six generic bulleted “strategies” that are copied exactly from the Snohomish County Plan (section 2, page 25).
There is also no explanation in the Plan of why if waste prevention is the highest priority all the money and programs that fall under that category have been cut in the past year. Or why the County is now spending more money on litter than on waste prevention and recycling. Seems like a comprehensive plan would explain what is really occurring instead of some generic ideals copied exactly from a different county with a much different solid waste system.
The Plan also does not explain why if pollution prevention is the highest goal there are no programs included along those lines like there were in the past, but nearly the entire moderate risk waste budget has been taken up by an increasingly expensive hazardous waste disposal program. What the plan doesn't say is that we have made the decision here not to try to provide incentives or educate people about not buying hazardous waste to begin with, but to make it easy for a small proportion of people (less than 7000 in 2008) to dispose of stuff for free when they buy too much. In other words waste and pollution prevention programs (the highest priority) for the entire population have been cancelled so we can afford to subsidize the free disposal of hazardous waste for less than 5% of the population. While proper disposal of this stuff is certainly important there is no consideration of other ways to do it cheaper. For example in Snohomish County they have a similar facility that is open far fewer hours to serve a larger population.
One last example: For years those concerned with Whatcom County's solid waste management have pointed out that the funding for the entire system is based on a universal collection ordinance that requires all people in the county to have garbage and recycling service unless they fill out an exemption form showing how they deal with their waste in a responsible manner. Previous studies (nothing in this plan) have shown that up to 20% of the households in the unincorporated areas ignore this requirement and the County does nothing to enforce it. This situation recently led to the collapse of the garbage and recycling service in Point Roberts leaving no collection service at all. In their review of this situation the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission stated:
“These ordinances, together with significant non compliance and a lack of enforcement, create a barrier for any certificated solid waste collection company to develop a sustainable customer base. The failure of the County to recognize and address the detrimental impact of its County-wide ordinances and policies on solid waste collection in the small community of Point Roberts has created a very difficult situation. “
While the location and population base in Point Roberts in particular makes this situation worse it is a problem throughout the county, leading to significant illegal dumping. It also means that our system is under-funded, that those who do have garbage pickup are subsidizing the programs of those who don't, and that collection costs more for those who do follow the law. You would think such a recognized basic problem would be addressed in a Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. There is no mention of this problem in this proposed plan.
I suspect no one will show up for this hearing because the County has done a good job of dragging this out for so long and undermining all attempts to turn this into a legitimate plan that most citizens who initially tried to have a say in this have burned out and went away. The real meat of this Plan is the “Five Year Plan” portion which ironically covers the years 2008 - 2012. By the time this Plan is passed nearly half of the five year planning period will be over before anyone even knows what it is we are suppose to be doing. But don't worry about that - there really was no plan to do anything during that period anyway.
The County could have saved a lot of time and money if they just submitted a one page document that said “Be Happy - Recycle” on it with perhaps a big smiley face.