After existing provider WastePro proposed rate increases as part of its contract renewal, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 21 to seek alternative providers on the open market.
“This does not speak to dissatisfaction with WastePro’s services,” said Chair Brownie Newman. “Although there’s always issues from time to time, the large majority of our constituents are happy with the service, and they’re doing a good job. So, it’s really just … the significant increases that are being proposed. I couldn’t support that without going through an open bid process,” he said.
WastePro’s extension proposal initially earned recommended approval from Buncombe’s Environmental and Energy Stewardship Subcommittee, but that was before the proposed rate hikes were announced, Newman said.
WastePro proposed an almost $3 increase to $25.16 per month to continue its existing services. Customers currently pay $22.55 monthly.
That 11% hike outpaces the county’s 5% projected increases, which were based on changes to the consumer price index such as fuel prices and increasing costs associated with running a fleet of trucks. An increase in tipping fees at the county landfill was also considered in the county’s projections, according to a Nov. 7 staff presentation.
Ultimately, the difference between WastePro’s proposal and the county’s expectations based on its 2020 agreement with the business is what sank the company’s contract renewal bid.
“If WastePro had honored the original contract with the CPI adjustments, I would feel comfortable doing the extensions. However, since they are increasing the rates for our residents beyond that CPI, I feel compelled to go to bid,” said Vice Chair Terri Wells.
WastePro had set rates through 2028 for Buncombe in its renewal bid, with raises of more than $3 each year to make up for labor costs and supply chain shortages.
Chip Gingles, regional vice president for WastePro, argued that the set rates were one reason the county should stick with the company, so residents could plan for what was coming. Other North Carolina cities like Kannapolis or Charlotte have seen rate hikes as high as 20%-40% in recent years, he said.
According to a Nov. 21 presentation by Dane Pedersen, Buncombe’s solid waste director, residents in Catawba County, home to Hickory, pay Republic Services $22.15 a month. Elsewhere, residents in Guiliford, Alamance and Henderson counties pay more than residents in Buncombe would have after WastePro’s projected rate hikes.
WastePro has been servicing Buncombe since 2010, Gingles said, and knows the county well, including working with hundreds of “premium” customers who ask WastePro to make inconvenient trips up long driveways to pick up cans at their back door.
Buncombe will now submit a request for proposals, projected to take four to five months, Pedersen said. Newman implored staff to seek as many qualified bids as possible. In 2020, the last time the county went out to bid, WastePro was the only applicant, Pedersen said at the Nov. 7 meeting.
Buncombe seeks TDA money for affordable housing
Commissioners agreed to support the staff’s effort to apply for one of the Tourism Development Authority’s new Legacy Investment from Tourism grants to help fund a large development on its Ferry Road site, which will include affordable housing units.
The county is applying to receive $6 million from the fund to go toward the project, located on the 137-acre site off Brevard Road in South Asheville, previously slated for Deschutes Brewery and now owned by the county. The project is expected to cost $210 million, and an analysis by the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative estimated the county or other public partners, such as the TDA, would be slated to pay about $34 million of that.
Plans for the project include 645 units — 54% of which would qualify as affordable — commercial and community services space and 72 conserved acres with more than 3 miles of greenways and trails, according to Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations.
The LIFT fund has about $10 million available in its first year of funding since legislative changes created the fund in 2022, increasing the amount that can be used for community capital projects from one-quarter to one-third of the lodging tax paid by overnight visitors to Buncombe County.
Love said he feels the project is well-aligned with the goals of the LIFT fund because it includes “construction and design of a new tourism-related capital project that enhances natural resources and expands upon necessary infrastructure,” as required by the fund.
Commissioners Al Whitesides, Amanda Edwards, Wells and Newman all expressed support for the project.
The TDA has never put funds toward an affordable housing project. But Newman said in unofficial conversations with the authority, it said a specific project would be considered.
The deadline for LIFT applications is Friday, Dec. 1. The Ferry Road project will need approval for rezoning from the City of Asheville because it is within city limits, and Love said he expects the Asheville City Council to review the project in March.
Reparations commission to get modest timeline extension
Assistant County Manager DK Wesley said county and city staff have decided to provide the Community Reparations Commission two additional months of in-kind support beyond its initial deadline of April 2024 at a commission briefing Nov. 21.
The commission had previously requested to extend its timeline through December 2024 to complete its work addressing systemic racism in Asheville and Buncombe County and providing recommendations on how local governments can make amends.
Despite requests from county and city staff for the reparations commission to provide justification for a timeline extension at its Nov. 6 meeting, reparations commissioner Keith Young pushed back on why that was needed when they already had a resolution. That led to county and city staff reviewing the request on their own, eventually determining that two extra months would be sufficient.
County Commissioner Martin Moore said Nov. 21 he was willing to entertain a longer extension but wanted to hear directly from reparations commissioners on why it would be necessary.
Whitesides, who said he has been watching all the meetings and thinking about reparations his entire life, said it was time to shut down the commission and let county and city staff take over.
“If they can’t give us justification, let us bring it to an end. Frankly, I don’t think the group is capable of bringing anything to an end,” Whitesides said. “It’s a waste of time going forward. Look, this is an insult to my ancestors to see what’s going on.”