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November 28, 2014

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Hauler’s plea for rate increase gets second look

Commissioner says deal may prevent legal fight over landfill cleanup

Beyond the Sun

Despite seemingly strong legal grounds to insist that Republic Services pay the full cost of closing Sunrise Landfill, some Clark County commissioners continue to push a plan in which ratepayers would pick up the tab.

A 1999 agreement between the county and Republic said the garbage company must “take all actions necessary” to clean up and close the old dump. In exchange, Republic’s lucrative monopoly contract to pick up garbage in unincorporated Clark County was extended 15 years, to 2015.

Late last year, the district attorney’s office revisited the subject and issued a strongly worded opinion concluding that Republic is legally obligated to complete all of the work regardless of whether the county approves a rate increase.

Even so, commissioners today will entertain — for the second time — Republic’s request to increase garbage collection rates to help fund the landfill’s closure.

Commissioner Chip Maxfield is leading the push. Maxfield, who rarely finds himself at the center of controversy, told the county’s chief deputy district attorney in a meeting last month that he disagreed with her opinion about the strength of the county’s case.

“I would rather not spend taxpayer money trying to defend a position that I think, personally, as much as I respect the DA, is down the middle,” said Maxfield, an engineer.

Such remarks have some county officials wondering privately why Maxfield is so passionately advocating a position that not only bucks the advice of the county’s attorneys, but also would place most of the project’s remaining financial burden on county residents.

Maxfield did not return phone calls from the Sun on Monday, but has said in the past that he fears a lengthy and costly legal fight — with no guarantee of victory — if the garbage company takes the county to court over the issue.

Republic’s attorneys have said previous deals dating to 1993 and incorporated into the 1999 deal implied that rate increases would help fund Sunrise’s closure.

Maxfield’s position might seem politically tenuous, but the second-term commissioner doesn’t have to worry about that. He announced last year that he won’t seek reelection.

Most other commissioners said Monday they would wait until today’s meeting before coming to any conclusions. Some, however, say the county has all the ammunition it needs to put to bed any talk of a rate increase.

“The 1999 agreement is quite clear,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. “We go to court on weaker issues all the time, so why wouldn’t we on this?”

Republic first proposed a 2.2 percent rate increase — an extra 84 cents on most residents’ quarterly garbage bills. Despite the modest amount involved, many residents say they oppose an increase of any size because Republic agreed to do the work in exchange for its unusually long contract extension.

Opposition from residents and the district attorney’s opinion put the brakes on the proposed rate increase until last month, when commissioners approved a consent decree that would essentially let the county off the hook with federal authorities for the remaining work on the landfill, estimated to cost $36.3 million.

The consent decree, which would require Republic to do the work, doesn’t go into effect until all parties sign it. So far, Republic officials have not done so, saying they need a way to pay for it.

Republic has spent $29.6 million on the dump since 1999, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the county and Republic to clean up and properly close the dump. Sunrise had stopped accepting waste in 1993, but a 1998 rainstorm ripped open the fill’s cover and sent streams of toxic trash into the Las Vegas Wash.

Republic has maintained it is responsible for only $36 million worth of work under the 1999 deal with the county. That agreement said the trash hauler could ask for a rate increase if costs exceeded the original $36 million estimate, but also specifies that commissioners have sole discretion in granting that request.

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