Trash-dumping legislation is dividing local lawmakers and, some say, could eventually mean higher taxes for all Beaufort County residents.
The bill, now pending in a state Senate committee, would void any county rule that requires trash to be dumped at a specific landfill. In Beaufort County's case, that's the Hickory Hill site in Jasper County, owned by Waste Management.
The bill's supporters say the intent is to create more free-market competition among trash haulers and landfills, leading to lower costs and better service for customers around the state.
But Beaufort County leaders who oppose the bill say that because there is no other nearby landfill for the county to use, the measure would deny the county an important bargaining tool with Waste Management and possibly lead to higher taxes for county residents.
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"In areas where there is no competition, like Beaufort County, the bill protects the monopolies," said Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, an immediate past chairman of Beaufort County Council. "(Letting counties have a say in where trash goes) promotes competition in Beaufort County rather than lessening it."
Lawmakers representing Beaufort County are split over the bill, which passed the House last month by an overwhelming majority.
Newton and Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, voted against it.
Voting for it were Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, and Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island.
Russ Hightower, spokesman for Waste Management, said there are no plans to raise the county's dumping rate.
"Nothing in this bill is going to make us increase or decrease rates," Hightower said. "Our pricing is and is going to be a fair, open, market-based approach. This bill has nothing to do with rates."
Gary Kubic, Beaufort County administrator, and other county leaders say Hickory Hill's monopoly already is hurting county residents who pay more in local property taxes for trash hauling than residents of other counties.
Beaufort County pays $29 a resident per year to haul trash to Hickory Hill, according to county solid waste manager Jim Minor. That does not include the extra collection fee charged to those who live in municipalities. And some residents of unincorporated Beaufort County contract directly with trash pickup companies and also pay a fee on top of the county tax.
Meanwhile, those in most other state counties pay $25 to $30, Minor said.
"People don't realize they're already tied into Hickory Hill and it's costing them," Kubic said.
Beaufort County leaders say they have considered building a large transfer facility, where waste could be stored temporarily and then trucked to a landfill farther away than Hickory Hill. That has helped keep Hickory Hill's rates in check, some say, and is prudent given that the landfill is expected to reach its capacity in 2016.
The bill's passage would eliminate that bargaining chip, opponents argue, ending the county's say in where trash is sent and giving Waste Management the upper hand in setting rates, according to Kubic. It could also impact the county's long-term decision on whether to set up a transfer facility, because the county would not be able to direct trash to the transfer site or to a specific landfill.
Waste Management's Hightower said the bill does not prevent the county from building a transfer station and hauling trash to the landfill of its choosing after its contract with Waste Management ends in a few years.
But, he warns, that could cost residents more.
"If this legislation is not passed, counties will have the authority ... to force residents, businesses and industries to use county-owned facilities, even when there is a more competitive and preferred option available in the private sector," he said.
Patrick, who voted for the bill, said he appreciates why Newton and some other local legislators voted against it.
"But from my perspective, government should not be in the business of setting up transfer stations for trash to go to one place, then to a final resting place so to speak," he said. "Let's get government out of the business of dealing with trash and let the free market work."
The bill will move to the Senate, where it will be taken up by a committee that includes Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
Davis said he has set up meetings with landfill representatives and county leaders to learn more before he decides how to vote. But his initial inclination is to side with Waste Management and the other waste companies backing the bill.
"It's fair to say, I have a very strong bias against any type of government-created monopoly," Davis said.
If the bill passes the committee, it heads to the Senate floor for debate. If it passes the Senate, it would need Gov. Nikki Haley's signature to become law.
Follow reporter Gina Smith at twitter.com/GinaNSmith.