Public Waste

Are Phoenix taxpayers being taken to the dump?

The vote passed so quietly, it didn't even seem newsworthy.

On January 16, the Phoenix City Council agreed to partner with the town of Buckeye to develop and operate a new city landfill, capable of holding all of Phoenix's solid waste until the year 2055.

The city had considered three possible landfill sites -- in Buckeye, Maricopa and near Anthem off Interstate 17. It opted to buy an 1,800-plus acre patch of private land in Buckeye near the Sam Lewis Prison on State Route 85.

Last week, the city agreed to pay $5.7 million to acquire the farmland from a private owner and now will seek environmental permits to begin construction.

The decision, according to city Public Works officials, was simple. Residents of Anthem, an affluent enclave north of Phoenix, vehemently objected to a landfill being built near their homes. The Maricopa site, on State Route 238 in Pinal County, was owned by a private waste-disposal company that didn't want to sell its land outright. But elected leaders in Buckeye were more than willing to make a deal.

Only after the council voted to buy the land did city officials admit to a few crucial details that taxpayers might have found interesting:

• The Buckeye landfill is so far away that it might not be feasible for the city to use it because of the hefty cost of hauling garbage there.

• The I-17 site near Anthem, which the city admits was its best option for saving money for Phoenix landfill users, was never appraised.

• The city likely will spend millions to develop the Buckeye site, only to pay even more money to hire a private landfill company to handle the city's trash elsewhere.

Phoenix's current landfill, Skunk Creek, west of I-17 on Happy Valley Road, is expected to reach capacity in 2005. The city has one transfer station at 27th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road. A second transfer station, to be built east of I-17, three miles north of Happy Valley Road, was approved in May 2001.

The 27th Avenue station is 51 miles one way from the proposed Buckeye landfill. The new station, once constructed, will be 69 miles one way from State Route 85.

The distance between the transfer stations, which is where residents leave solid waste to be taken to the landfill, is a concern because a longer drive means higher disposal and tipping fees for users. The cost right now at 27th Avenue is $26.25 a ton for people dropping off more than 12,000 pounds of trash. No tipping fee has been established yet for the proposed transfer station off I-17.

City residents, as part of their monthly trash service fee, pay $19.20 for curbside collection of trash and recyclables plus disposal. Residents also can take trash to Skunk Creek for free on weekends.

But those fees are expected to increase with a new landfill. That's why officials say they plan to review rates from private companies to begin handling Phoenix's trash once Skunk Creek shuts down.

"We want to do what's most economically feasible," says Ron Serio, the city's landfill project coordinator.

The city's plan, Serio says, was to buy the Buckeye site, develop it and then "decide if it makes sense" to take garbage there.

The Buckeye site might not make economic sense, but it makes good business sense for the Public Works department, which oversees the 1.2 million tons of trash generated by Phoenix residents each year.

"It's critical for us, with our business philosophy, to have the option to operate our own site," says Public Works director Mark Leonard. "We always want to have that option so we can always have the leverage in a competitive environment."

Phoenix traditionally has contracted out a portion of its solid waste disposal to a private company. To ensure the best price for those services, the city has contended that it doesn't need private help. By buying the Buckeye site, the city can hold fast to that position when Skunk Creek closes and possibly force a private company to offer lower rates.

"It may be we'll get a better price," Leonard says. "It may be that we won't."

But residents, he says, should not be upset that the city is spending millions just to appear competitive. He says the Buckeye site won't sit idle, even if the city opts to hire a private garbage company.

Phoenix has the option of allowing the town of Buckeye to dump garbage there. The city also can attempt to forge a regional site by offering competitive rates to other West Valley municipalities.

The truth is that the best bang for the city's buck would have been to develop a landfill northwest of I-17 and the Carefree Highway, near Anthem.

The I-17 site is closer -- 13 miles from the proposed north transfer station and 31 miles from the 27th Avenue station. And, according to Serio, that proximity would have meant a less significant increase in garbage fees for Phoenix users. While no firm numbers are available, initial estimates show the fee increase related to opening a landfill near Anthem would have been between $2 and $5 less per trip than the Buckeye and Maricopa sites.

The city held two public meetings in Anthem to discuss the site, which would have bordered a federal prison and the Ben Avery Shooting Range.

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