After audit, waste management districts hope to stay local

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 | 10:43 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers met Tuesday to try and answer the question of who should regulate and pay for Missouri's solid waste programs.

The Joint Committee on Solid Waste Management District Operations, which was established by the state legislature during its last session, heard testimony from government employees, elected officials, business owners and private citizens. The hearing allowed lawmakers to look into potential solid waste management issues and possibilities for improvements to the current program in the legislature's next session.

At the hearing, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, brought up the issue of funding several times, suggesting that it may be more effective to let private companies fund recycling initiatives instead of state grants. 

"I have no doubt that the grants, for example, they're effective in what they do," Schaefer said. "But the question is, is there a private sector function of that, or is that subsidy ... necessary for that recycling to occur?"

There are 20 solid waste management districts in Missouri, each responsible for the general oversight of local waste management programs in several counties. Among other responsibilities, each district promotes environmental stewardship and oversees grants for local recycling programs.

During the last legislative session, Schaefer proposed eliminating waste management districts, instead placing all local programs and processes directly under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Schaefer's proposal did not make it to a vote in the Senate.

A state auditor's audit released last week also critiqued district funding, finding that administrative expenses among districts varied widely. In some districts, as much as 50 percent of funds went toward these costs. Several district managers in attendance countered this assessment during the hearing, saying these costs might include everything from salaries to educational programs and calling for a formal definition of what qualifies as an administrative expense. 

"Until you provide a unified definition of what an administrative cost is, it's very difficult to determine cost from district to district," said Ronda Gulley, District O associate planner. "The strength of this program lies in its diversity."

Many of those who testified felt current solid waste districts are essential, as well as the grants that help fund district programs. Brady Wilson, chairman of the Ozark Rivers Solid Waste Management District, said local staff is better able to determine who should receive a grant and what programs are worth funding.

"The local decision-making is paramount," said Wilson. "They know the local climate, they know a lot of the players that are involved, and they know who's competent and who's going to follow through."

Despite questions over district funding, last week's audit gave the solid waste programs a "good" rating, a score supported by most of those who spoke Tuesday. Gary Gilliam, vice chair of the Ozark Rivers solid waste management district, called the districts' programs the backbone of recycling in Missouri.

"I would recommend that you take a good, close look at the ability to create incentive by the grassroots from the little Potosi to the St. Louis, Kansas City," Gilliam said.

Going forward, the committee will need to establish a baseline to determine what qualifies as an administrative cost, said Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, calling the current definition a "moving target." Ross said most people at the hearing seemed supportive of maintaining district programs, with their focus on local decision-making and grant distribution.

The committee's next hearing will take place on Nov. 7. 

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