By Paul Gable
Horry County Council is scheduled to discuss the latest revision to the Horry County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) during its budget workshop next week.
According to information SWA Director Danny Knight provided to SWA board members recently, approximately 30 minutes has been scheduled for discussion of the SWMP and the county’s budget Fund 6 which provides revenue for the SWA convenience centers throughout the county.
The county’s SWMP needs approval from Horry County Council before it can be submitted to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The SWA initially requested approval during an October county council regular meeting and council Chairman Mark Lazarus scheduled discussion for the budget workshop to give council members time to study the over 500 page document.
This is a good first step. However, 15-30 minutes during the council workshop is probably not nearly enough time to dig into the details of the proposed SWMP and the inconsistencies that seem to be contained therein.
The SWMP is an important guidance document in that it outlines the plan the county has for the handling of solid waste for the next 20 years. Prior to requesting a permit from DHEC for change or expansion of services, that change or expansion must be included as part of the SWMP.
Included in the current SWMP revision is a large expansion of space for the burying of additional municipal solid waste (MSW) in future years.
This is being planned despite the fact that the SWA has never studied alternatives to burying more and more waste in Horry County as it was charged to do in the county ordinance 60-90 that established the SWA.
According to DHEC reports, there are nine county owned landfills in South Carolina. The SWA buries approximately 99% of the waste generated in Horry County in the SWA landfill on Hwy 90. The average amount of county generated waste buried in the other eight landfills owned by various counties in the state is 35%.
Other than its pride in being called “The Independent Republic”, why do Horry County solid waste management practices diverge so widely from what is considered sufficient in the rest of the state?
The future expansion plans contained in the SWMP revision are projected to cost a total of approximately $117 million in current dollars. Studying spread sheets contained in the plan revision, there appear to be concerns about this level of funding being sustainable by the SWA.
One area of concern is the amount of closure and post-closure funds available to the SWA. These are the funds necessary to seal off the landfill when it is full and monitor that seal for 30 years after closure, as required by state and federal regulations.
The SWA is already running a deficit for closure and post-closure funds required by DHEC. In January 2018, Vance Moore, the contract engineer for the SWA estimated the fund total needed for closure and post-closure of the landfill was $30,859,854. According to SWA documents, as of 8/31/2018, the authority had $18,150,126 in accounts restricted for closure and post-closure costs.
Each year the SWA is required to file with DHEC a letter of financial assurance demonstrating where sufficient closure and post-closure funding will come from to meet DHEC requirements. Each year, the SWA pledges Horry County general fund revenue to make up the difference between SWA accounts and the amount needed to satisfy DHEC requirements.
According to spread sheets completed by Moore for the revised SWMP, those closure and post-closure funds will decrease to a total of approximately $3 million in 2024 as funds designated for closure and post-closure will be used instead for construction in the intervening years.
The plan in outlying years is to increase closure and post-closure fund set asides from SWA tipping fees to make up the $31 million plus inflation needed by the time the landfill will be closed. It used to be SWA policy to keep sufficient closure and post-closure balances in account in the event the landfill needed to be closed immediately. That, apparently, is no longer the case.
This plan to use closure and post-closure funds for other uses and make up the difference in future years sounds much like the federal government’s use of the Social Security Trust Fund. As we all know, money from the trust fund has been used for a host of other purposes by the Feds without it ever being replaced.
Is this what we want to potentially happen in Horry County? The alternative to the SWA maintaining sufficient funds for closure and post-closure is using county general tax revenue as is demonstrated in the financial assurance filings with DHEC.
In other words, if the SWA projections are faulty, county taxes will have to go up or other county services will have to be cut, or some combination thereof, to provide the needed closure and post-closure funds for the landfill.
These and other issues arising in the SWMP should be fully explored by council before it gives approval to the new revision. The time allotment in the budget workshop is a good start, but only that. It appears further study beyond the workshop allotment will be needed for the SWA to provide sufficient answers to county council.
Full disclosure and transparency with council may not be in the SWA’s plans. SWA Executive Director Danny Knight told SWA board members during the November 15, 2018 board meeting, “One thing, it is going to be my recommendation (to the board) whatever happens (at the council workshop) to go ahead and turn in a letter of determination of needs and letter of consistency to the state and go ahead and get the project started.”
Knight’s recommendation is to go ahead and get the expansion project permitting started regardless of whether council gives its approval or not. Permitting for the project alone is included in the SWA budget at a cost of $450,000. This seems a large expense and arrogant attitude by Knight, especially if council chooses to exercise due diligence by amending or disapproving the proposed SWMP revision.
Attached below is an extract from the county’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report which clearly states that the SWA board clearly designated funds for certain purposes. Are the SWA and the county being completely transparent with their respective auditors by shifting these funds around for purposes not originally designated?