Blair County’s ‘tragedy of commons’

I don’t often agree with County Solicitor Nathan Karn, nor do I appreciate his outsized influence over county policy and that of many of its municipalities.

But he has it right with respect to the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC), led by the very able but often frustrated John Frederick, whose job appears truly thankless.

Unless and until a new model for funding is built and state law is rationalized, IRC services should be limited to those who actually pay for them.

The IRC has done its best to comply with an underfunded state recycling mandate that, while noble in intent, foists funding obligations on communities that do not have the economic strength to comply, much less bear the burden of paying for services in boroughs and townships exempted from that mandate.

Smaller rural townships in Blair have no obligation to recycle at all, no matter how much waste they actually produce, even though they use the same landfills as the larger municipalities.

But it is now pointless for Frederick to approach the county for help.

For the commissioners, there’s little political profit in landfill relief or groundwater protection. They’ll happily hike taxes to fund the convention center, Explore Altoona and the swollen county payroll, but they are not going to pony up more money for recycling from the general treasury.

And as Karn points out, the county did collect a landfill tipping fee before the courts ruled it lacked the legal authority to impose it. This enables the commissioners to declare the county absolved of responsibility to address the solid waste crisis until the state changes the law.

The recycling marketplace, such as it exists, cannot possibly produce enough revenue to sustain mandated services, even in the four IRC municipalities. That would necessitate, in one form or another, new taxes.

With those taxes not forthcoming, Frederick believes the only option left is direct government control of the refuse disposal market.

Hence his insistence on a single-hauler system, under which a municipality simply confiscates the entire market from the small haulers, and hands it over to a single corporate entity enjoying essentially guaranteed returns and quasi-governmental status.

It’s called corporatism, and it is an abhorrent model for a free-market economy. Choice is eliminated and successful small businesses destroyed.

Fortunately there are other options, and there is real public support for the IRC in the four constituent municipalities. Hollidaysburg in particular is well-placed to frame a viable model that retains a competitive hauling market and complies with statewide recycling objectives while providing sufficient funding for the IRC.

Hollidaysburg residents have issued a resounding “no” to single hauler, but that does not mean the borough is unwilling to craft solutions, for itself and for the whole county, even if prices must rise to match the real costs of solid waste management.

We are faced with what economists call “the tragedy of the commons.”

The real but diffuse costs associated with solid waste pollution can still be “externalized,” so that any individual can generate waste without worrying about its wider impact. Those illegally dumping waste have little fear of criminal prosecution.

This means the IRC will always be paddling upstream.

With no help on the horizon from the state or the county, Frederick must turn to the municipalities, which must face up to their obligations to protect the environment while not spending beyond their means, or tampering with market forces they cannot control.

Richard Latker