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Tire cleanup funding diverted

The state is steering money from its tire tax to other projects, leaving the county without funds for recycling.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


INVERNESS -- The state tire tax once had a nice symmetry to it.

Every new tire came with a $1 fee that helped pay for environmental and litter control programs, including used-tire disposal. Money from that fund helped Citrus County recycle about 500 tons of tires last year, including nearly 200 tons recovered from illegal dump sites.

This year, however, legislators steered most of the tire tax dollars toward other projects, leaving Citrus County and most other counties without any grants for tire disposal, litter control and recycling education.

Although Citrus officials have scraped together enough local dollars to keep their neighborhood recycling centers and litter control programs afloat, there is not enough money to continue cleaning up illegal tire dumps, county recycling specialist Frank Wentzel said.

As a result, the county will not renew its contract this month with Mike Burns Enterprises, the contractor who has cleaned up the tire dumps for the past two years, Wentzel said.

"It is a very expensive job, and we just don't have the money to do it ourselves," Wentzel said.

"When you buy tires, you are paying into a fund for tire disposal," he added. "I cannot see how it makes any sense to put that money somewhere else."

The Legislature decided that the grants, including the $152,763 that Citrus County received this past year, were only supposed to help the counties start their recycling programs, not subsidize those efforts indefinitely.

"There is a general sense in the Legislature that the recycling programs have pretty much accomplished the goals they set out to accomplish," said Ron Henricks, head of the waste reduction division with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"The way some legislators have portrayed it, this is not against recycling," he said. "We have accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish, and now the state has other priorities."

The state dished out the first recycling grants in 1989, telling counties that the assistance would last for just five years -- presumably enough time for local recycling programs to become self-sufficient.

But the state grants continued past the five-year mark, as moderate community participation and stagnant resale prices for recycled materials kept the programs from completely paying for themselves.

Recycled newspaper fetches the same price today, about $25 to $30 a ton, as it did eight years ago, Wentzel said. And the price for recycled steel, after accounting for inflation, is at an all-time low, he said.

"Ben Franklin got paid more for steel," Wentzel said.

The state grants have covered about a third of the recycling program costs, with Citrus County picking up the rest of the tab.

The county's $456,894 recycling budget for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, included $152,763 in state dollars. The grants included $60,175 for tire disposal, $77,088 for recycling education and $17,500 for litter prevention.

None of those grant dollars appear in the county's recycling budget for next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, although Citrus County is receiving a first-time state grant of $50,000 for electronics recycling.

The state's solid waste management trust fund, a blend of tire tax dollars and sales tax revenue, will provide $5.8-million next year in recycling grants to small counties with fewer than 100,000 people. But the bulk of the fund -- about $33.8-million -- is going to the state's working capital fund, a giant pot of state dollars that cover a variety of projects.

Because the tire tax dollars are being mixed with other dollars in the working capital fund, DEP officials said Monday it was impossible to specify which projects will be funded with the former recycling grant money.

The loss of the grant money was "very disappointing" to County Commissioner Josh Wooten, who made litter control a keystone of his campaign last year.

The tire cleanup program is important, Wooten said, because abandoned tires collect rainwater and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Wentzel also noted that unlike most other kinds of trash, tires do not break down over time.

"Paper or plastic in the sunlight breaks down within a few months," Wentzel said. "But a tire, after 20 years out in the weather, still looks pretty much like it did when it was put there."

The county recycles the tires by sending them to an alternative fuel power plant in Polk County, where the oil-based tires are burned to generate electricity, he said.

Wooten hopes that as new tire dumps crop up, the county can find the dollars in its own budget to clean up those sites.

"The good news on the illegal tire dumps is that we about got them knocked out last year with that grant money," Wooten said. "We were at least able to get caught up. I'm sure if there's small sites popping up, we'll be able to find the money in the current budget to take care of that."

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