Supes take on dump biz, casino expansion

The county took on a smelly, $1.8-million-a-year job Tuesday, as the Butte County Board of Supervisors voted to take over the Neal Road Landfill from its current operators, Waste Management Inc.

As the long, drawn-out negotiations between the county and its garbage haulers creak toward closure, the board approved a plan it hopes will save taxpayers at least $500,000 and as much as $1 million a year by using county workers and leased equipment to maintain the dump. Though the plan passed unanimously (minus Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, who was absent due to a death in the family), there were murmurs among some members that the plan ran counter to their free-market ideals.

Kim Yamaguchi said he was willing to try the plan as “an experiment,” while board Chairman Bob Beeler suggested the county had little to lose, as it could always contract out the job at a later date.

The landfill issue is just the fetid tip of a stinky mess that cascaded from a July 2001 request by Waste Management that the county pay millions more per year for its management of the landfill. The county, already looking to take over the scale house operations—where the garbage is weighed and “tipping fees” are collected—opted out of its contract with Waste Management and started looking for a cheaper contractor.

The subsequent lawsuit between the two parties has yet to be settled, but the county’s Department of Public Works did discover that it could operate the dump at a lower cost than Waste Management by saving money on such things as labor, equipment maintenance and, of course, stockholder profits.

The board also voted to update its agreement with county garbage haulers, requiring them to take all county-generated trash to the Neal Road dump. (Currently, haulers have the option of using private out-of-county dumps.) The logic behind that, explained Public Works Director Mike Crump, is to increase revenue from the dump’s tipping fees, which would then go toward efforts to create more recycling programs. There is also talk of raising tipping fees at some later date, which will likely cause some haulers to raise collection rates.

The other big talk at the meeting was over the expansion of Oroville’s Gold Country Casino, which has begun preliminary construction on a seven-story hotel and gaming complex. No one on the board expressed opposition to the project itself, and even if they had, it wouldn’t have made much difference. The casino is run by the Tyme Maidu tribe on the Berry Creek Rancheria, which operates as a sovereign nation through compacts with the state of California.

Beeler actually praised the project, saying it would bring a much-needed boost to the local economy. The problem, said Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh, is that the rancheria has exhibited a “frustrating” lack of cooperation with county planners, who have raised concerns about traffic, drainage and emergency access issues.

Butte County’s fire department, for example, does not own a hook-and-ladder truck that would be able to reach the top floors of the new building, were it to catch fire.

“The impacts of this facility will be significantly greater than what is in the original environmental-impact report,” McIntosh said. “All we are asking for is the cooperation of the tribe.”

Indian gaming compacts require casinos to pay a certain amount of their revenue into a state fund that is supposed to mitigate local impacts, but, said County Counsel Bruce Alpert, “No one knows how that’s supposed to be administered.”

One tribal member, a man named Adrian Smith, spoke in an informal capacity at the meeting, saying, “I know a working relationship can be established.”

But the board, worried that the project would be finished before its concerns are dealt with, voted to involve Sacramento, stopping just shy of asking the state for an injunction to stop construction. Alpert admitted the move was little more than a dramatic "cry for help," as there is little chance of the state’s stepping in. However, the state is in the process of reviewing its compacts with the various gaming tribes and could potentially consider the county’s plea as it makes those deliberations.