Don’t count on SPSA

Published 9:45 pm Friday, December 12, 2008

A decade may seem like a long time, but local governments in Western Tidewater should proceed with urgency in plotting a new strategy for garbage disposal.

The Southeastern Public Service Authority, which has failed miserably as a regional waste-management agency, is set to expire in 2018 — if the debt-ridden organization makes it that far. Nothing short of a complete reconstitution will preserve SPSA beyond that date, and most observers believe the kind of fundamental reform needed to make the agency viable is politically undoable.

SPSA’s largest member community and garbage producer, Virginia Beach, and the agency’s fastest-growing locality, Suffolk, have contractual sweetheart deals that are largely responsible for the current fiscal mess, including $240 million in debt and the immediate prospects of adding many millions more. A successful SPSA would mean those two localities pulling their weight, but neither has political or financial incentive to do so.

Former Southampton County Administrator and Franklin City Manager Bucky Taylor was chosen last summer to succeed longtime SPSA leader John Hadfield in large part because of Taylor’s long history and friendly relations with government leaders throughout the region. If anyone could navigate the political minefield that SPSA has become, it was Taylor, SPSA supporters believed.

But a scathing state audit and a consultant’s recommendation of major reform in the meantime suggest that the rebuilding job is beyond even Taylor’s considerable talents.

What should Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County be doing? Planning a smaller regional approach to garbage disposal.

That’s the advice of Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw, who is preaching regionalism — cooperation among Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County, specifically — to anybody who will listen.

Bradshaw, in remarks to a citizens group over breakfast at Fred’s on Wednesday, advocated the creation of a waste authority to serve the needs of Western Tidewater alone. The Carrsville resident believes the three localities could dispose of their garbage for as little as $30 per ton by using existing, privately owned landfills.

That would be quite a bargain compared with the $104 per ton that our localities now pay SPSA. What’s worse, agency officials say the tipping fee is likely to go up to $135 per ton, which would put the cost of local garbage disposal among the highest in the nation.

Bradshaw said he wouldn’t be surprised if the tipping fee hits $200 per ton.

As for SPSA’s current woes, Bradshaw acknowledged that he, like citizens throughout the agency’s service area, had been hoodwinked.

For years, we were told by SPSA staff and local representatives on the agency’s board that all was fine and that the agency was simply the victim of a mean-spirited, misguided press, specifically The Virginian-Pilot, which has been reporting aggressively on SPSA’s shortcomings for years. A board that rubberstamped Hadfield’s actions brought no accountability to an organization that sorely needed it.

Now the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Taxpayers’ best hope is that the agency can figure out a way to retire its debt before the sun sets in 2018. If not, Bradshaw confirmed, member localities — and, by extension, their taxpayers — will inherit the agency’s obligations.

Western Tidewater could sit tight, keep paying through the teeth for garbage disposal and hope that SPSA successfully reinvents itself. The more prudent course is to prepare now for life after SPSA.