Less trash at McCommas Bluff Landfill means less cash for already-stretched city budget



Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:29 PM

Big D is in a heap of fast-mounting financial trouble.

The city-owned McCommas Bluff Landfill in southeast Oak Cliff is one municipal enterprise that actually turns a profit each year. The landfill was budgeted to generate about $28.6 million in revenue this fiscal year, but it is not expected to meet that projection.

City officials already have trimmed $90 million from next fiscal year's budget, but they're still staring at nearly $100 million in cuts.

It's uglier than a late-night police mug shot.

And if you're searching for underlying reasons for the budgetary bloodletting - beyond falling property and sales taxes, of course - here's one place you can dig for clues: the McCommas Bluff Landfill.

The city-owned landfill is among a handful of municipal enterprises that actually turn a profit each year.

And, to be perfectly clear, McCommas Bluff is still raking tens of millions of dollars a year into city coffers.

That's the good news.

Here's the gloom: The municipal midden is not making nearly as much money as city officials had projected this year. If anything, the landfill illustrates the degree to which a slumping economy is creating huge cash-flow problems at Dallas City Hall.

The landfill was budgeted to generate about $28.6 million in revenue this fiscal year, which runs, or crawls, through September.

"But because the economy has decreased the amount of construction work, which produces nearly half of the landfill's commercial waste stream, we've seen about a 20 percent decrease in the amount of construction debris," said Mary Nix, director of sanitation services.

Consequently, Nix estimates now that the landfill revenue "will not exceed $25 million." That means the city is getting at least $3 million less than it pegged.

For a city with a projected $1.9 billion operating budget next year, that may sound like small potatoes to some.

But when you're scraping the bottom of the bin, it's not.

As Nix will tell you, those millions quickly add up in a tight budget year that's already forcing bigwigs to weigh hard and unpopular decisions, such as slashing funding for HIV/AIDS education programs, cutting library hours and gutting programs for seniors.

"The money that comes out of this landfill not only pays for this operation but for other operations," Nix said. "It could mean the difference between how many potholes can be filled and how many times we can mow the weeds."

As Nix indicated, Dallas makes its money off of its commercial haulers because the city can charge them market rates, or $21 a ton - $3 more than it was about a year ago. Commercial haulers dump more than a million tons yearly at the landfill.

The plunge in landfill revenue is happening around the country, not just in Dallas.

Last month, The Associated Press reported that landfills, most of which are privately run, are laying off workers, cutting hours and hiking fees to counter the slack in demand.

The Dallas landfill already has trimmed its expenses and is getting by with at least 10 fewer workers than budgeted, among other things.

"If the economy continues to decline," Nix lamented, "that revenue estimate may be further decreased, which has a clear impact on the other city programs for which that revenue is applied."

Dallas residential customers, meanwhile, bring in about 600,000 tons of waste a year, and the city charges them a monthly "sanitation" fee - currently $20.98 plus tax.

Now, officials are floating the idea of tacking on another 9 cents a month next year for residential trash pickup to help bridge the budget gap, a move designed to help keep the lid on ad valorem taxes.

At McCommas Bluff, which lies about 10 miles south of City Hall, landfill manager Rick White, aka, "the garbage czar," still presides over one of the largest dumps in the nation.

"We take in a thousand trucks a day," White told me Tuesday morning as one dump truck after another rolled through checkpoints, climbed a dusty, steep hill, maneuvered onto a steadily shifting, football field-sized "tipping floor" and unloaded tons of refuse.

For now, unfortunately, the landfill's taking in less garbage and dough than it had hoped - one more reason top managers are down in the dumps.