SPSA at a crossroads

Published 4:16 am Friday, December 26, 2008

We believe strongly in regional cooperation among local governments because of the many potential benefits to area citizens. Economies of scale suggest that services can be provided better and cheaper when localities band together.

Unfortunately, the region’s garbage handler, the Southeastern Public Service Authority, has given regionalism a black eye.

The pact among eight South Hampton Roads localities, including Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight, has been a failure by most any definition. Except for Suffolk and Virginia Beach, which have sweetheart deals with the agency, SPSA members are paying well above the national average to dispose of their garbage, and tipping fees are expected to go even higher in 2009. Meantime, the agency has amassed $240 million in debt that will become the responsibility of taxpayers in those localities should SPSA fail to retire it.

SPSA staff and board members, who spent years in public denial about the brewing fiscal storm, finally faced up to reality last week and informed taxpayers that the agency must either downsize or go away completely. A third alternative — for localities to keep paying higher tipping fees to keep SPSA afloat — is generally regarded as unacceptable.

Because of our strong belief in the value of regional cooperation, our first inclination is to support a smaller, retooled SPSA that sells most of its assets and contracts its services to the private sector. That’s what Executive Director Bucky Taylor and the board have proposed.

But it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. The SPSA board’s long history of group-think and rubber-stamping staff’s recommendations is what got the agency into its current mess. The agency’s contracts are rife with inequities, including a dollar cap on Virginia Beach’s tipping fees and free disposal for Suffolk, the agency’s fastest-growing locality. Reforming SPSA in a way that makes those communities pull their own weight might be politically impossible.

Southampton and Isle of Wight supervisors and Franklin City Council members should consider their options very carefully and resist the temptation to simply go along with other member localities. SPSA’s current state vividly demonstrates that what’s good for Suffolk and Virginia Beach isn’t necessarily good for rural Western Tidewater.

Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw advocates a smaller regional approach involving his county, Southampton and Franklin. He believes the three localities can negotiate tipping fees with private landfills at a fraction of what they are now paying SPSA.

That option should be explored thoroughly before Franklin, Southampton and Isle of Wight commit blindly to the perpetuation of an agency that has failed repeatedly to earn local taxpayers’ trust.