PALMER — About two weeks of free trash dumping at the Mat-Su landfill and transfer stations in September cost more than double what borough officials originally estimated, they said — and now they have to figure out how to pay for it.
The free-use days were held Sept. 16 to 30. Approved by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly in a 5-1 vote in July, they were expected to cost about $400,000 in lost revenue, an estimate based on fees paid during previous use over that same period, borough officials said.
But as word spread about the unlimited dumping, visit numbers swelled to nearly double the typical daily volume, they said, causing large traffic delays that forced officials to hire flaggers and creating massive amounts of extra work for landfill staff.
“As the two weeks developed and more people became aware of the free event, the traffic started getting heavier and heavier,” said Jeff Smith, the borough’s solid waste manager. “People were lining up about 6:30 in the morning for an eight o’clock opening. And we were shutting down at five o’clock sharp, typically with people in line that we couldn’t service during the day.”
All told, the landfill lost about $730,000 in user fees over the two weeks, processing a swell of more than 17,500 customers and an average of 380 tons of trash a day — about 160 more tons than normal, according to data provided in Borough Manager Mike Brown’s weekly report.
The landfill also spent a little over $163,000 over the two weeks, according to the report. That included payments to the traffic flaggers, about 150 hours of extra staff time, extra fuel and fees for contractors who move trash from the landfill’s eight transfer stations, Smith said.
At least some of the users drove in trash from outside the borough, he said.
“There were people that came in that would claim they’re from the borough. And once they were inside they would tell other employees that ‘Oh, this is great, because I just drove up here from Anchorage,’” Smith said. “So when we knew they were, then we tried to turn them away. But people say what they say — we didn’t have any real control over it.”
The ordinance governing the free trash days did not block non-borough residents from accessing the service. Landfill staff does not perform ID checks at the gate.
Mat-Su’s landfill operations are funded by user fees. In the past, budgeting shortfalls have been made up by either increasing those fees or through an appropriation from the borough’s general fund, Smith said. Money in the general fund comes from borough property tax payments.
Smith said for now he can tap into the landfill’s reserve fund to make up for the shortfalls created by the lost revenue and free dumping days expenses. But that account is earmarked to pay for the landfill to open and close disposal areas of the dump, known as cells, and any money taken from there will have to be replaced during the next borough budget cycle, he said.
The free trash days, which applied to residential waste only, were designed to help residents get rid of waste before winter, Rob Yundt, one of three assembly members who co-sponsored the legislation, said early last month. Assembly members Mokie Tew and Dmitri Fonov also co-sponsored the legislation. All three are running for reelection Nov. 7.
Trash blown around during major windstorms in January and December 2022 cost hundreds of thousands dollars to clean up after the fact, Yundt has said. He had hoped opening the dump for two weeks of unlimited use would address that problem for this coming winter.
Yundt did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Stephanie Nowers, an assembly member whose district includes the landfill, opposed the ordinance because the borough didn’t have a plan to pay for the loss of fees or potential extra staffing costs.
Nowers said Monday she fielded a parade of complaints over the free days from residents who live near the landfill and were unable to access their homes due to significant traffic delays at the gate, which sits at the end of North 49th State Street near Palmer.
About a dozen homes only have access from that street, with no alternative entrance routes. And traffic problem backups can be compounded around school release times at Colony Middle and High School, about 1 1/2 miles away.
“I knew it was going to be bad but this is even worse than I expected,” Nowers said. “It was, in my opinion, completely fiscally irresponsible to do this.”
Borough property owners receive a $8 coupon by mail every year which can be used at the landfill or transfer stations, with the most recent coupon sent last spring.
Smith said he hopes to work with the assembly to boost that coupon value to $50 and extend its use window to a full year rather than host more free trash weeks in the future. Doing so would save the borough about about $500,000 as compared to this year’s free dumping days, he said.
“If everybody used it, if you had a $50 coupon and 100,000 people in the borough, it would cost you half a million dollars,” he said. “So out the gate, you’re saving a half a million dollars, and you don’t have all the extra cost to operate.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the total cost of free residential trash dumping in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The full cost was just under $900,000, not $935,000.