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Comptroller says landfills cost local government big over time

Local governments that own landfills face nearly $300 million in estimated long-term costs for their active and closed landfills, according to a report released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Much of these costs are associated with the decades-long monitoring and maintenance required to prevent waste and contaminants from seeping into groundwater.

Municipal landfills were the target of an investigative report by the New York State Comptroller’s Office.

“Owning a landfill can generate significant revenues, but also carries a significant long-term price tag,” said DiNapoli. “Before landfills begin to reach capacity, it is critical that local governments plan for future costs that will be paid long after the revenue stream has ended.”

In 2017, local governments outside of New York City reported spending a total of $917 million on refuse and garbage-related activities.

Local governments and public authorities own and operate various types of solid waste management facilities, including transfer stations, combustors, recycling centers and landfills. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), there are 2,745 solid waste facilities active in New York, of which at least 768 are owned by local governments and public authorities. These entities own most of the transfer stations in the state, and nearly half of the recycling facilities (46 percent, or 142 out of 312) and landfills (47 percent, or 85 out of 180). There are also 27 municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills in the state, which take in the most residential, commercial and institutional waste; 20 of these are owned by local governments or public authorities.

DiNapoli’s report revealed that for local fiscal years ending in 2017, 80 local governments reported post-closure liabilities for landfills totaling $298 million, which is the estimated amount they expect to pay over a 30-year period. This total includes amounts as low as $23,000 for the town of Arietta (Hamilton County) to $34 million for the town of Brookhaven (Suffolk County). It also includes costs totaling $110 million, ranging from $2.1 million to $14.5 million, for the 12 cities, counties and towns that have active MSW landfills and reported post-closure liabilities for 2017.

The report also noted international concerns that are likely to impact landfill owners in the near future and long-term. Policy changes in China have effectively closed the Chinese market to most U.S. recyclables. As commodity prices for recyclables have fallen, operators of recycling centers are experiencing drops in revenues from sales of the materials they collect.

Across the state, local governments and their residents can expect to face increasing costs related to recycling, at least in the near term. For example, in the city of Albany, increased fees charged by its recycling firm are going to cost the city an estimated $400,000 per year. Monroe County is receiving lower revenue-sharing payments for recyclables from the firm operating its recycling center and the firm has approached the county about renegotiating its agreement in light of the drop in recyclable commodity prices.

To assist municipalities with long-term costs, DEC has a Landfill Closure and Landfill Gas Management State Assistance Program that provides grants to local governments to close older inactive landfills or manage gas at active landfills. However, the program is funded at just $250,000 per year and has a long waiting list.

DiNapoli’s report highlights the need for local government officials with landfills to manage these assets carefully, giving consideration to measures such as establishing reserves to pay for landfill closure and post-closure costs to help ensure that landfills do not become a burden to community residents.

For a copy of the report “Local Governments and the Municipal Solid Waste Landfill Business,” go to: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/research/landfills-2018.pdf

Find out how your government money is spent at Open Book New York. Track municipal spending, the state’s 150,000 contracts, billions in state payments and public authority data. Visit the Reading Room for contract FOIL requests, bid protest decisions and commonly requested data.

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