Operational changes, layoffs proposed at Merced County landfills

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 4, 2013 

— Pulling the county’s landfill operating costs out of the dumps is no easy task, but the waste management authority’s new director proposed a plan Thursday to get the facilities back on track.

The plan involved cutting out wasteful spending and generating more revenue, a few policy changes and laying off nine employees.

Brooks Stayer, director of the Merced County Regional Waste Management Authority, faced a $1.4 million deficit at the county’s two landfills – Highway 59 and Billy Wright – when he took the job three months ago.

“The operators are doing a good job, but maybe they haven’t been told the right things to do,” Stayer said during a Merced County Association of Governments study session Thursday.

The first change proposed by Stayer was eliminating the $19 flat rate charge to customers disposing a half ton of garbage. Staff should have been weighing loads that appeared to have more than a half ton of garbage, Stayer said, but that policy wasn’t being enforced.

“Most of the customers have more than half a ton, so we’re incurring more costs than they’re paying us for,” Stayer said. “We’re losing money, so this is a good time to start using the scales we already have.”

Weighing each customer’s load will bring an additional $100,000 per year to the landfills, according to Stayer’s estimates.

Stayer also recommended getting rid of a perk that allowed supervisors to drive their trucks home each night. By eliminating this practice for seven trucks, Stayer said, there will be a $35,000 saving in fuel costs.

One supervisor was driving equipment back and forth to Chowchilla each day, Stayer said, with the county paying the fuel cost.

MCAG spokeswoman Lori Flanders said staff were unaware of this policy but that it may have been in place before MCAG began managing the landfills in 2011.

“It’s the first we’ve heard of it,” Flanders said. “We weren’t aware of it until Brooks started evaluating the system.”

One change implemented by Stayer was covering garbage with tarps each night instead of using soil. By using tarps, Stayer explained, the landfill saves air space, which can be sold to other cities and add to revenue.

Currently, Turlock brings its garbage to the Highway 59 landfill. That temporary contract has brought the county $159,000 in revenue since July, according to Flanders.

The cost-saving measures alone aren’t enough to dig the landfills out of the red and save money for equipment, expansion, state environmental liability costs and repayment of a bond.

“The overwhelming majority of the budget is labor and equipment,” Stayer said. “We have to make some hard decisions now so we start saving money.”

Stayer proposed eliminating 13 positions between the two landfills – seven at Highway 59, four at Billy Wright and two office jobs.

The total number of jobs at the landfills would go from 43 to 30, he said. Four positions were vacant and will not be filled, so nine employees would be laid off.

As of June 30, annual employee salaries and benefits were $3.6 million and equipment-fuel costs were $2.2 million. Selling excess equipment could bring about $1.1 million in revenue, Stayer said.

The landfills’ total revenue was $9.6 million compared with $11million in expenses last year.

Other budget alternatives include the county selling the landfill sites and outsourcing disposal; or keeping the status quo and increasing tipping fees by $17 per ton. That would mean ratepayers in the county’s six cities would see increases, Stayer noted.

Merced County District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, also chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said residents don’t want to see more increases to rates.

Rates have risen 25 percent in the past five years.

“We have had a lot of rate increases over the last 10 years or so, and everybody wants to not have that happen,” Kelsey said.

MCAG’s governing board will vote on changing the $19 flat rate policy and the other recommended operational changes at its Oct. 17 meeting.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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