The Unicoi County Solid Waste Committee is still deliberating over how to handle customer complaints over the county’s solid waste services, much of which center around the decision to stop taking demolition materials. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Solid Waste Committee met on Tuesday, Feb. 13, to discuss issues of illegal dumping and customer complaints, most of which surround the county’s April 2016 decision to stop taking demolition materials.

Unicoi County has an approximate annual budget of $557,000 for solid waste services. Between the three convenience sites – Limestone Cove, Lower Higgins Creek, and Hoover –  there are three employees, or a director for each site.

At the Limestone Cove site the director is paid $350 weekly, $405 a week at the Lower Higgins Creek site, and $350 at the Hoover site. In order to compensate for the low pay, the employees are permitted to salvage some of the items they deem to be valuable and resell them.

“This formula has saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Glenn White, Unicoi County Commissioner and chairman of the Unicoi County Solid Waste Committee. “If we went the other route of hiring more personnel, our budget costs could double. We want to provide a good service, but also save dollars.”

White also said that the current payment structure with the waste site directors has allowed them to avoid raising taxes, and if they were to pay the waste site directors a salary with benefits, that could amount to about $90,000 a year.

Since the county stopped accepting demolition or construction materials such as carpet, shingles, or wood, it has saved the county close to $100,000 annually.

Charles Baines, solid waste director for Washington County and chairman for the Regional Solid Waste Committee, was present at the meeting to inform committee members on Washington County’s solid waste plan, and assist county leaders in how to move forward with this issue.

“We have had the same problem with demolition materials,” Baines said. “We were getting large amounts of demolition materials, and a lot of that was from small contractors running around that didn’t even have a license.”

Baines said that by not accepting demolition materials, it has saved Washington County around $6,000 per month. Baines added that after they put up signage indicating they would no longer accept demolition materials, he and the mayor received close to 100 complaints a week

“We got threatened and cursed, but we were getting to the point where we were going to have to increase the budget if we kept accepting it,” Baines said.

Among Washington County’s five waste sites, there are 14 full-time employees, and around 12 part-time employees. Baines said that there are three full-time truck drivers, and the other employees handle recycle and maintenance, while others operate the convenience center.

The full-time employees are started out with a pay of $9 per hour with benefits for a 40 hour work week, and the part-time employees start out at $8.50.

Their employees are not allowed to salvage or sell any materials, and instead recycle any scraps. For 2017, Washington County had a net savings of $315,803.72 by recycling their scrap material.

One thing that has helped Washington County cut costs is by limiting the open top bins to larger items like mattresses and box springs, and trying to utilize a compactor as much as possible.

“The more tons we could pack in a compactor, the better off we were,” Baines said.

They used to only have four or five tons of waste in the compactors, but now most of their sites averaged around 10 tons for the month of January.

Baines noted that solid waste sites are required by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to accept household waste, but not demolition materials. However, they can choose to accept demolition materials as long as the permit includes those items.

“You can take it if you want, but you are going to have to pay to haul it,” Baines told the board.

The county pays a haul bill, and then there is additional charges according to the tonnage being transported.

White and Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice pointed out that the current permit, which was issued in 1998, does not include demolition materials.

Baines said that the permits do not have to be renewed, and he wouldn’t anticipate there being a problem with updating the permit to include demolition materials, but ultimately it was something they would have to discuss with TDEC.

“I don’t understand how we can take couches and box springs when those items have wood in them,” asked Gene Wilson, Unicoi County commissioner and Unicoi County Solid Waste Committee member.

Baines replied that because they were technically household materials, those were permitted. Wilson suggested the possibility of purchasing an incinerator for those items to cut costs, but Baines said those were extremely costly and heavily regulated.

While the solid wastes sites are not permitted by TDEC to burn brush on site, individuals can burn their own brush on private property as long as they have a permit through the U.S. Forest Service.

Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas asked if there had been any problems in Washington County with employees stealing scrap or metal to sell on the side.

“We have had some problems, and I’ve had to fire two or three people, but the cameras take care of a lot of that issue,” said Baines.

Wilson brought up the issue of excess tires that are received at the dump site, and asked if Baines knew of a solution. Baines said that Washington County accepts the tires, but citizens are required to pay a nominal fee of $1 to dispose of them, and dealers are required to pay by the ton.

“A lot of places charge $3 or $4,” he said.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said that in Unicoi County, citizens are allowed to dispose of 12 tires per year, per address.

“This is just an assumption, but if we stopped accepting tires they would probably throw them over a bank somewhere,” White said.

Baines shared a story of someone in Washington County renting a mini-storage warehouse, and after the user ceased payments, the warehouse owner found the storage unit filled to the brim with tires, which he had to pay to dispose of.

“They’ll think of anyway they can to get rid of them,” Baines said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland asked how Washington County handles the disposal of asbestos shingles.

Baines replied that even though it was technically demolition material, their landfill will accept it, but there is a special waste charge.

The discussion once again circled back to the issue of how to dispose of demolition material, and Thomas said it was the number one complaint he has received. He suggested the committee compile hard data comparing when demolition material was accepted, and when the county stopped accepting it as well as composing an alternate budget showing what it could cost the county if they were to start accepting those materials again.

“About every three years, I would say every citizen has demolition or construction material to dispose of, and not everyone has a place to burn it or bury it,” Thomas said. “As a taxpayer, I would rather pay three cents of my taxes to be able to dump this than to drive somewhere where I could dump it, which would cost more.”

The Unicoi County Solid Waste Committee will compile more data and information on the waste sites before meeting again in about two weeks.