Do you use the county dump, a.k.a. the Hunterdon County Transfer Station on Petticoat Lane in Clinton Township, to dispose rubbish and recycling?
The county commissioners are about to sell it to a private company because — after over 25 years of public ownership — they suggest they have no idea how to manage this significant public asset.
If you’ve ever wondered what your county commissioners actually do, you might be surprised to learn they’d really rather do less! (Oh, all those pesky constituents who expect us to know what we’re doing after they elect us!)
“Let’s dump the dump! It’s easier than managing it!”
The county dump has been owned by the county for over 25 years. Commissioners Zachary Rich and Shaun Van Doren are running for reelection this year, but don’t want to be bothered with the tough job of managing the dump. They would rather leave you to pay whatever a private business wants to charge — if the buyer even keeps the dump open to the public.
Once it’s sold, Hunterdon residents that rely on the dump will be subjected to the whims of whoever buys it. (Hint: Taxpayers own the dump, but the county hired your favorite garbage company, Waste Management, Inc., to run it. So guess who’s likely to buy it?)
A chance to speak up, demand answers
The county is required by law to hold two public hearings prior to putting the facility up for sale by bid. The first hearing, on June 6, will introduce an ordinance for the sale. The second public hearing will be held on June 27 at the Clinton Township Municipal Building on Route 31. Both meetings will be at 5:30 p.m., when most people are at work.
This is the time for the public to ask questions, demand answers, and to comment.
The commissioners have offered no meaningful reasons for dumping the dump, no financial justification, and no evidence that the sale will benefit taxpayers or residential or commercial users.
Let’s take a look at the pure political-speak offered by Commissioner Director Zachary Rich at the commissioners’ April 18 meeting. As reported in the Hunterdon Review:
“Now is the time to move forward on the sale of the transfer station,” said Rich.
The county has owned the waste facility for over 25 years. Why is now the time to sell it? Rich doesn’t volunteer any real explanations.
A garbage story
The story Rich and County Administrator Brad Myhre throw at the public is perhaps best described as, well, garbage. The county serves up no compelling rationale or details that support their decision, just useless, bureaucratic, political double-talk.
In other words, the quick proceeds from this rushed garbage sale might plug a whole lot of holes in the county’ budget. Besides, not having to manage a dump operation would sure be a relief — the commissioners could get back to the hard work of channeling taxpayer funds and federal and state grant funds to their favorite political patrons.
The dump story peddled by the commissioners appears to be a garbage story. They have offered no defensible reason for selling off the dump.
The “governmental bureaucracy” behind the problem
Director Rich slips and blames the very body he leads — the board of commissioners — for the “governmental bureaucracy” that has been derelict in managing the dump properly. Yet he wants the public to trust a decision of the very same bureaucrats to sell off this important public asset.
But Rich avoids any allusions to the drawbacks and downsides of turning ownership over to a commercial entity. The oblique double-talk gets worse:
“For many years the county has examined the potential privatization of the transfer station so as to remove governmental bureaucracy for what should be a private business operation.”
So this decision has been in the making “for many years”? There must be loads of credible documentation in support of the sale. Where are the bureaucrats keeping it hidden?
What have been the results of those examinations of “potential privatization”? What factors were considered in all those years? The public deserves to know.
Disclose all the details before the first hearing
Rich announced two public hearings about the proposed sale. This is required under N.J. law before a governing body can sell a public asset. But how can taxpayers ask questions and participate in a public hearing if they don’t have the facts?
Rich is admitting that for decades the county commissioners have been subjecting residents to a “government bureaucracy” behind the dump. He says it “should be a private business operation.” But other than political platitudes Rich offers nothing to support what seems to be merely his wishes as a politician.
- Why should the transfer station be a private business operation?
- Where is the analysis and due diligence?
- Who actually made this decision?
The only way to conduct above-board public hearings is for the commissioners to release all records and data about the county’s management and deliberations relating to the dump prior to the hearings.
It would certainly be embarrassing if a subsequent, massive OPRA request for internal documents exposed poor decision making — or chicanery. (Just ask the N.J. State Water Authority: Documents reveal scramble for last-minute justification of route 629 closing.)
Disclose the full financials
TapInto Flemington-Raritan reports:
“The transfer station has an annual operating budget of $194,320, according to the proposed 2023 proposed county budget.”
No other financial information has been reported. It would be helpful if the commissioners were to fully disclose the dump’s financials, and explain any issues that support divestiture of the dump operation.
Absent information about revenues (like user fees) generated by the facility, or about grants, subsidies, or other funding the county gets for it, any public hearing would be an insult to the public. For example, Hunterdon County has received significant infrastructure funding from the state and federal governments. How does this net out against the costs of operating infrastructure like a county dump? It’s clear the commissioners are not telling us everything.
Either way, taxpayers (a.k.a. consumers) pay more
According to the Review:
“Waste Management Inc. currently operates the transfer station site while the county retains ownership, and the site’s current operating agreement between the county and company will expire on Dec. 31 of this year.”
How much does WMI pay the county, or does the county pay WMI? This stuff matters if taxpayers are to give approval or to nix any sale.
Rich admits residents will pay more when he drops this bomb that should raise the eyebrows of every taxpayer:
“There are substantial infrastructure improvements necessary to continue operations at the transfer station and those costs are better borne by a private investor rather than our county’s taxpayers.”
Maybe Rich believes his constituents are silly suckers who will swallow his sly pitch that, if he unloads the dump, taxpayers will somehow save money.
If the dump is sold, why wouldn’t the cost of improvements be passed on to users, just as the costs would be borne by taxpayers if the county were to make the improvements? Exactly why is this not a zero sum game?
Or what game is Director Rich playing? Maybe he’s showing you that famous shell game the Hunterdon commissioners like to call “conservative financial management” every time they run for reelection.
No demonstrated benefits to taxpayers
At the very least, the commissioners owe taxpayers a detailed rundown on what improvements need to be made to the transfer station and why, and the estimated costs.
If they can’t document estimated costs, how can they expect the public to believe selling the dump is the right decision?
Director Rich and Commissioner Shaun Van Doren are running for reelection this year. It would behoove them to be a lot more transparent — and honest.
The commissioners have offered absolutely no evidence that the users and taxpayers would benefit in any way from the sale of the transfer station. If the commissioners were to suggest, “We’ll tell the public about all that at the public hearing,” that would be a railroad job designed to fulfill the legal obligation of conducting one of two public hearings, but without a real opportunity for informed public participation.
(Perhaps it is no accident that the public hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m., when most people are still at work and unable to attend. The commissioners are notorious for discouraging public participation and for using public hearings as nothing more than CYA.)
What the public needs to know
In order to conduct an honest and frank public hearing about the proposed sale of the transfer station, the commissioners need to explain why they failed to manage the transfer station effectively for the benefit of users and taxpayers.
The privatization of public utilities and other public assets has proven disastrous elsewhere. What is the role of government if not to manage assets entrusted to it by the public?
- Are the commissioners trying to unload a valuable public asset merely because they don’t know what they’re doing?
- Is the sale a fait accompli and are the public hearings just an unavoidable charade?
- Are we looking at a sweetheart deal in this sale?
- Is the transfer station the problem, or is lack of management acumen on the part of the commissioners the problem?
Users of the dump complain the facility is an eyesore and poorly maintained. Selling it to a purely profit-motivated commercial entity seems more likely to raise user costs and lower quality of service simply because users will not have any leverage at all.
Why are they selling it?
A well-managed dump would not operate in the red. A dump should generate revenue and even profits. What the commissioners are clearly telling us is that they want to dump the dump because they’re losing money on it — or maybe they just need the cash that a sale would generate. But are they losing money on it because it’s a bad asset, or because they are incapable stewards?
If you use it, you need to know why the commissioners really want to sell your county dump — before a private buyer jacks up fees and before your government gives up control of the quality of service you already pay for.
You should vote
So, you are probably still wondering, What do the county commissioners actually do? Apparently as little as they can possibly get away with, while still taxing you $79.2 million. The commissioners are raising the real county tax levy by $6.1 million (8.3%) over 2022, no matter what they claim about a “flat tax rate.”
You should vote in the commissioner election this November — after separating the garbage from the truth.
You should demand answers
The two public hearings are your chance to make the commissioners accountable — and to protect an important public asset.