While Douglas County, Oregon … where I live … wrestles with the loss of millions of federal dollars in the coming months, and some drastic cuts in all services, we have a blackmail game being played here on a free service that exists nowhere else in Oregon. Or the rest of the country, either, I’m told.

First, here’s a little background. The County runs a solid waste system as nearly all counties do. The crown jewel … if garbage has such an ornament … is a large and seemingly well-run landfill just South of Roseburg off I-5. I’ve used it several times and have been impressed with the way it’s run. Always greeted with a smile by the lady in the little house at the entrance. Helpful assistants pointing out which unloading zone to use. And a full array of recycling bins near the entrance. Yep, seems to be state-of-the-art as these things go.

But … we have something you don’t have. We have all this and we’re not charged one dime to use it! Not a penney! It’s FREE! Residents can just load up, drive a mile South and empty the old pickup at no charge! How about that?

Now this solid waste business in our county costs about $3.5 million to run each year. In addition to the landfill, there are about a dozen transfer drop-off stations in the county. Overseeing all the activity are 26 workers or “full time equivalencies” in government-speak.

The County gets $575,000 income a year from some commercial fees and resale of wood chips and scrap iron. So there’s about a net $2.9 million that has to come from somewhere to make budget.

That additional money has been part of a federal subsidy this county and 17 others have enjoyed for a number of years. The feds have been paying millions to the counties for school support, public safety and other programs because of federal timberlands each county had that wasn’t on the tax rolls. Sort of a “safety net” as it were. Until now.

Now, all 18 counties are going to lose this “net.” I could tell you horror stories of what losing many millions of dollars will do to local budgets for public safety and other services but we’re just talking landfill here. And the landfill alone will lose all that $2.9 million which underwrites the solid waste program.

“So what’s the problem,” you ask? “The gravy train is gone,” you say. “All you freeloaders are going to have to just pay a few bucks to get rid of what you don’t want just like me. What’s the big deal?”

Well, that’s where the blackmail comes in. Because every time the county commission goes anywhere near the fee idea, the hearing room is filled with people who say “O.K., charge us $5.00 for a pickup load of our trash and we’ll just dump it along the road somewhere. Go ahead. Start charging. We’ll start dumping.”

And every time that has happened … so far … the commissioners back away and somebody changes the subject. For years, threats to break the anti-littering and similar laws have been enough to keep our little landfill business fee free.

I’ve never lived anywhere where landfills were free. Only here. And I have to admit that, each time I take a load of family castoffs to the dump, I feel a bit guilty for using the service without paying $5-10 for the privilege. Tain’t right.

I’ve never served in elective office and, God willing, never will. Just not cut out for it as you’re about to see. I lack the saint-like patience needed for such voter employment and have little use for people who make a tough job even harder. Like these blackmailers.

There are, I’m sure, better and more legally-trained heads than mine who are aware of this “mountain-meets-Mohammed” situation and have given it some thought. So I’m not liable to be asked for advice. And the advice I’d give might not even be legal.

But here’s what I’d say. Develop a list of appropriate, reasonable and expected charges for using our landfill. Post them prominently. Enforce them absolutely. Then put a county ordinance on the books with a fine of a minimum of $1,000 mandatory for the first conviction of illegal dumping. Then $2,500 mandatory for the second and $3,500 for the third. And enforce it … absolutely!

Somewhere in the trash most people throw away are clues to identify and track who it belonged to. Not always. But sometimes enough … like a VIN number on an old car body … to trace it and make an example of the first miscreant to have his illegal dumping butt seated in a county court room. Even just one enforced $1,000 fine will echo through the underground like wildfire.

Times here and elsewhere are tough. And they’re about to get tougher. I don’t envy county commissioners their jobs. But this economy can no longer afford the unique Douglas County “free landfill” use we’ve enjoyed. Every service provided must carry its own weight to be sustained.

And if somebody wants to avoid both the fee and reality, I say “sock it to ‘em.”

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