Merced County landfills look at cutting equipment, possibly jobs

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 30, 2013 

An analysis of Merced County's two landfills could lead to cutbacks in staff and equipment, according to the report's early findings.

Neal Bolton, founder of the consulting firm Blue Ridge Services, shared his assessment with the Merced County Association of Governments' board earlier this month.

"We are continuing our operational assessment. At this point, we've identified some operational improvements," Bolton said at the board meeting. "On the cost side, we have identified excess resources at both landfills."

Bolton said the excess resources were built up during the "good times" -- when the landfills experienced a boom in business. He said this trend happened in the industry at large, not just Merced County.

"Part of this is a result of building up equipment and staffing, perhaps in anticipation of continued growth in tonnage, and other opportunities, but that hasn't happened," Bolton said. "We're going to be reducing a number of machines and there likely will be some staffing reductions."

Deidre Kelsey, chairwoman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors and District 4 supervisor, said Bolton's recommendations didn't come as a surprise. "I think the board has been watching this situation develop over the last several years," Kelsey said.

"We've been watching the tonnage of the landfill go down for many years," she added.

Forty-one employees in all work at the Highway 59 and Billy Wright landfills, according to Lori Flanders, MCAG public information officer.

The majority of the positions are as follows -- 12 maintenance workers, earning $33,009 to $42,182 a year, and 10 equipment operators, earning $38,272 to $46,529 per year.

There are four scale-house clerks, earning $29,640 to $36,088, and four site supervisors, making $55,764 to $67,849.

The report hasn't defined the number of positions that could be trimmed, Bolton said, but officials expect more details when the budget is finalized next month.

"We don't have those defined yet, we're still working through our budget model to come up with that," Bolton said at the meeting. "But there will be a significant reduction in equipment and some, we anticipate, in staffing as well at both landfills."

In February, MCAG officials met to discuss raising rates for the Green Waste program. MCAG oversees the county's solid waste landfills and tackles related issues through its Merced County Regional Waste Management Authority Board.

Kelsey said raising the rates without having a plan to make the landfills more sustainable won't work.

"You've raised rates, and you still have to cut services," Kelsey said. "We need to make some strategic decisions, and there's a strong possibility we'll have to change the way we do business."

Flanders said Bolton signed a three-month contract in February to provide consulting services after the unexpected resignation of former Solid Waste Director Sam Chandler.

Specialized skills

"We needed someone that specialized in the skill set of managing a landfill," Flanders said, adding that Bolton's contract will not exceed $60,000.

The assessment also found a few safety issues -- nothing "drastic or serious," according to Bolton. Staff has taken steps to mitigate those issues.

During the meeting, Bolton said there might be an opportunity to contract with Mariposa County to dump its waste at the Highway 59 landfill, and talks with the city of Turlock for a similar agreement.

"They are somewhat unhappy with the situation in Stanislaus County and they're looking for an alternative," he said.

In the meantime, MCAG officials are working on replacing Chandler by June 1, with five finalists interviewing for the job next week.

The new solid waste director will have a clear picture of the landfills they're taking over because of Bolton's assessment, Flanders said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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