Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield is picking up efforts to clean up the county while cutting costs.
In 2017, the county’s litter crew picked up just over 123,000 pounds of roadside trash. The county had collected 131,990 pounds by the end of November this year.
“We’re committed and determined to clean this county up,” he said.
The cleanup crew consists of one employee, some inmates, a van and a trailer. Whitfield said utilizing inmates helps keep costs low, and he plans to add a second crew soon.
Reversing landfill’s losses
Between the landfill and operating the Mountain Cove Farms Resort, the county lost approximately $1 million annually for several years, Whitfield said.
The landfill lost roughly $2.4 million in the four fiscal years of 2013-16, according to county audits.
Prior to 2017 money from the general fund was used to cover losses at the landfill. County officials have characterized this arrangement as taxpayers subsidizing an operation that was supposed to stand on its own, and they explained that it contributed to the county’s escalating debt.
Whitfield said that when he took office in 2017, the county was almost $70 million in debt. By cutting expenses and taking a stance that protects the financial interests of the citizenry, he expects to have paid off $30 million of that debt by January 2020.
One of the most significant steps was making the landfill pay for itself. Some waste-haulers received a discounted rate per ton to dispose of trash that originated in Tennessee, the commissioner said.
“We couldn’t afford to keep them as customers,” Whitfield said when he ended the discounts that effectively caused residents to pay more in landfill fees so those sanitation companies could pay less.
The reduced volume has helped the landfill at 5120 N. Marble Top Road, Chickamauga, become more self sufficient. It generated $26,500 in fiscal year 2018.
The landfill still accepts regular waste from outside companies at the construction and demolition landfill, but those companies now pay $5 per ton more than county residents do, he said.
Residents’ household waste is still transferred to Alabama, he said.
Combating blighted property
County codes enforcement has identified about 300 vacant, uninhabitable buildings. The county has begun tackling the cleanup of blighted properties through its Clean and Lien program.
The county turned in 13 blighted buildings to the magistrate judge this year. Property owners are repairing two structures, and one owner demolished the building before that case proceeded to court, he said.
In September, the judge authorized the county to demolish six structures, two of which are on one property. The judge either continued the other cases or is expected in January to consider the final order in those cases.
Blighted structures “devalue surrounding property and pose a safety hazard,” the commissioner said, adding he is concerned that children playing in a vacant building could be injured if the building collapsed on them.
Whitfield stresses that the county is not evicting anyone, and the buildings are not realistically salvageable.
“We’ve had a lot of support from citizens to get this done because people are tired of looking at them (blighted structures) in their neighborhoods,” he said.
After being cited to court, the property owner has a period of time to bring the structure back up to code. If that does not happen, the judge authorizes the county to demolish the derelict buildings within a 270-day window. The county then files a tax lien on the property tax bill to recoup the demolition expenses, and then the tax commissioner follows through with the tax collection process, he explained.
Whitfield said the county only takes these steps if the property owners refuse to demolish or rehabilitate their buildings, but he would prefer the county not be in this business.
Tire program rolling on
Junk tires dumped along roadways once posed a significant litter problem in the county.
Walker County rolled out a tire amnesty program in 2017. Since then, nearly 23,000 tires have been collected and sent to a recycling center, where they will be turned into industrial fuel or rubber mulch for landscaping and playgrounds.
The county collected 1,464 tires Nov. 2 during the Retire Your Tires Amnesty Day event, said Joe Legge, Walker County public relations director. Combined with an amnesty event earlier in the year, 10,397 tires were collected.
The county hopes to offer its next tire amnesty day in spring 2020, Legge said.
Walker County residents were allowed to dispose of 12 tires per vehicle for free. Businesses were not eligible to participate.
The disposal cost for tires for cars and light trucks ranges from $3-5 per tire, with larger fees for tires for larger trucks and farm tractors, according to the landfill’s fee schedule.