Take Back The Dump!

Guest Post by Caroline DiDiego, aka @CASUDI

Imagine you are a small local environmental business, open 3 days a week, with a couple of employees and several volunteers, required by a local county agency to spend $50,000 for a toilet (sewer hookup), a toilet to be used only very occasionally. Regulations also preclude a Johnny-on-the-spot (obvious cost effective solution), as this is not permitted within the sewer district!

Does this type of regularity hurdle imposed on a small business sound familiar? This is just the most recent of many hurdles, which have faced the “owners” of a small local community business in their successful quest “To Take Back The Dump” 

This is the story of the Island community of 2500 people in the Pacific Northwest, who mobilized themselves to take control of their dump, which was managed by local county government, and was losing money.
The county solution to cut costs and pay back legacy debt was to raise prices for dumping, and discontinue the self-separating recycling process by residents, and instead co-mingle all garbage. (no image needed here we all know what co-mingled garbage looks like)

Environmentally, this was a huge step backwards for the local Lopez island community, whose dump and recycling center had become, over years of effort, a model of recycling efficiency; a working model that people came from as far away as Japan to learn from! 

The bottom right is the “take-it-or-leave-it”, an integral part of
Lopez Island recycling: family helping family!
2010 images by ©Ilse.

 The Idea
The idea to “Take Back The Dump” started in early 2010 when two local women, Sandy Bishop & Rhea Miller set the ball in motion by calling a meeting at the local library. With little fanfare, ninety people showed up, committed to the idea. This snowballed into a virtual frenzy of research and donated time by local resident professionals with legal, financial, and business expertise.

Another very compelling part of the
story is in the 2002 Seattle Times
newspaper article
,  and references
Neil Hanson (above)
who conceived of the dump as
a model reuse site. 

The Research 
The research narrowed down to two options, each with their own set of legal hurdles. The first option was to bring the dump under the jurisdiction of the local Port Authority, which among other tasks runs the islands’ airport, and is managed by three elected commissioners. The second option was to create a new and separate local ‘Solid Waste’ entity, separate from the existing county agency. For a variety of complex reasons, the second option was chosen, and then began the even more complex journey of proving to the County that the proposal by the local residents community leaders would be a viable option to the existing money-losing county process.

The Business Plan
When I first heard about “Take Back The Dump”, I said to one of the community leaders: “the business plan is the vehicle to prove to the County that we have an economically viable idea; demonstrate that the budget could be balanced, and that additional funds could be put aside for future improvements”. The end goal may be a little different to a small business that wants to make a profit, but the process to get there is quite similar.

The planning and business modeling on this were intense, with reams of input from many volunteers!

WHY, HOW and WHAT would the residents contribute? To what lengths would the community go to ”Take Back the Dump”? In a small business this is customer development; once you have identified your customer, why and how will they buy your product, and of course, how much will they pay for it? 

The Pothole
Turns out that the ‘legacy debt’ previously incurred by the county, through imprudent investments in land and equipment, amounted to a staggering $2,000,000, and the local community was obligated to make payments on this every year, if they were going to take back control of their dump. How were they ever going to balance their budget?

The Solutions 
After considerable thought and In the face of expected resistance, it was decided to impose a new excise tax on local property to make up the budget shortfall. Many hoops were jumped through to get this on the November 2012 ballot, and amazingly, it passed with an 85% majority! No tax increase ever passes with that kind of majority! Still, it’s a one shot deal, and will the locals be willing to repeat this again next year if the budget shortfall does not go down as the managing board anticipates and hopes? Typically, the government always raises taxes when there is a budget shortfall, like it or not. However, I look at this particular action as more akin to a community of friends and family, supporting a new business navigating a difficult first year! And I contributed to the excise tax!

Junk Bonds to the Rescue!
In early January 2013 the “Take Back the Dump” Opening Day was nearing, and there was no more money for tools and supplies. Now what? Once again, volunteers to the rescue! A group had came up with the idea of SWAP (Solid Waste Alternative Project), a nonprofit, which among other things put on the most popular island fund raising event ever ~ “Trashon’-Fashon”.

The “Trashon’ Fashon” fundraiser.

And to top it off, local artist/entrepreneur Kate Scot designed an absolutely worthless “junk bond” costing $25.00! No matter, BUY ONE NOW! 
“Junk Bonds” helped raise more funds. 
“The Dump” is now under a managing board of local residents, who still has to report to the country governing board, with what I was told has ‘limited control’ 
Successful chef, local entrepreneur and volunteer Joyce Briner (above), helps CASUDI
yesterday with the challenging new set of rules for sorting, which are
being embraced by all with fervent cooperation and a chuckle. (If these same rules
had been instituted by government, I suspect there would have been a riot)!
1.There is real power in a “small town” community ~ think how you can apply this mindset and mobilize yours?
2.You run the small business development process from soup to nuts, and it works even when applied to something like a “Take Back the Dump” initiative,
3.Opportunities grow from unexpected places. Those who spearheaded this initiative have now been asked to help a neighboring island to take back their dump…. Valuable lessons learned here; creating a consulting business opportunity to help other communities. 
(1) Are there innovative ways to handle those local small business regulations that keep you from doing business more efficiently?

(2) Are there other examples of local government entities where this same business model could be applied? (skip the idea of FedEx taking over the USPS and running it at a profit!)

(3) Do you have any clever ideas how the island community can solve their “toilet” issue? (back in the first paragraph)? 
Special thanks to Dan Post, Port Commissioner and community leader, for his patient help with fact-checking this post! 
Credit for Images, used by permission:
©ILSE Dump 2010, 
©Summer Moon, Trashon-Fashion 
©CASUDI All others
About the Author: 
Caroline DiDiego, known to many as CASUDI both online & offline, is a multi-faceted entrepreneur with parallel careers. In the one she focuses on Architectural  & Landscaping Design solutions and the other (where most of you know her) she does what it takes to move start up & early-stage companies, from “concept” or “chaos” to fundable and/or profitable.
She has designed & produced award winning television film documentaries, corporate marketing and product videos and television commercials. Storytelling is her thing She mentors small business and says “we all learn!”

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. says

    LOVE this. Not only was a strong alternative discussion spearheaded by a small group of people that believed that there was another (better) choice but also the creativity and commitment of the community! You’re right – voting on the tax was voting to support something that mattered to everyone and it was a vote for the heart of the community and what mattered most.

    Appreciate the parallels to small business – instead of always thinking in terms of our silo – it’s time to think about the power of community.