Fresno County's sprawling American Avenue landfill last year took in close to 420,000 tons of trash from municipalities, hamlets and rural homes and businesses from across the county.
Of that, none were bigger than the city of Fresno, which provided close to two-thirds of that total.
But trouble could be brewing between the landfill -- owned and operated by Fresno County and located southwest of Kerman -- and its largest customer.
A 20-year contract between the two political heavyweights expires next June, and negotiations on an extension have yet to start. At the same time, the city has had preliminary discussions with two other landfills that would likely welcome the chance to be a new home for Fresno's trash.
For the county, losing the city would be like a huge shopping center losing its anchor tenant. It not only would hurt both the county and smaller cities that take their trash to the facility, but could jeopardize a business deal to sell landfill-generated gas to a company that plans to turn it into energy.
Yet more ominous: County officials say the loss of such a large amount of trash could potentially trigger a state law that would force the landfill's early closure, though they said they would pursue an extension to keep it open.
"I guess what just really amazes me is why we haven't been talking with the city of Fresno up until this point," Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said at a recent meeting. "Common sense to me says we should have been talking about this years ago, because the potential impact to this general fund, under the worst-case scenario, is devastating."
Perea's comment came a short time after a county official had downplayed any sort of crisis.
"It's not an urgent need at this point in time, but it's something we need to start thinking about," said John Thompson, resources manager with the county's public works and planning department.
Fresno's public utilities director, Patrick Wiemiller, said the city asked the county last year about negotiating a new agreement, but "there didn't seem to be interest at that point."
In the meantime, the city has had preliminary discussions with the Fairmead Landfill in Madera County and the Avenal Landfill in Kings County -- though Wiemiller said he remains open to talking with Fresno County about striking a new deal on the American Avenue landfill.
At this point, it appears the city has the upper hand in any negotiations. For one, Wiemiller said if Fresno enters into a new agreement, "it would be under different terms, not an extension of these terms."
But the city has other options.
It could seek proposals from landfills in a competitive bidding process, and then take the best one. It could negotiate an agreement with a landfill, which would then require City Council approval. Or, Wiemiller said, the city could simply look for the best deal on a daily basis starting next July 1, much like any homeowner who has to make a run to the landfill.
Whatever the case, the ultimate beneficiary, he said, would be the ratepayers.
That doesn't necessarily mean lower rates. But it could mean any cost increases that would be passed on to ratepayers could be mitigated. The city is currently doing a rate study, and Wiemiller predicted that some sort of price increase will be the end result.
City officials typically reset utility fees every five years. City Hall is now two years overdue for such a top-to-bottom review.
The typical residential customer pays $25.37 a month for trash service.
As Fresno is looking to benefit, a county staff report says losing the city's trash would force a 55% increase in "tipping fees" -- or the cost to dispose of trash at the landfill -- from the current $23 per ton to $41.55.
County staff also would recommend cutting 14 jobs and closing the landfill on Sundays and Mondays. It currently operates 362 days per year, only closing on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Waste experts say the trickle-down effect would almost certainly be felt by just about everyone in the county whose trash ends up at American Avenue, because they would likely pay higher trash-disposal rates.
The county is also in negotiations with Toro Energy to purchase landfill gas that is currently burned off. Earlier this year, bids from three companies for the project -- including Toro -- estimated the county's revenue from the project could range between $148,219 and $1.66 million annually.
But Toro is concerned that the loss of the city's trash might hurt the project's economic feasibility.
The biggest potential impact would be the landfill's early closure -- if it happened.
Officials estimate that at a rate of 1,100 tons per day dumped at the landfill, it would fill up between 2050 and 2059. If the amount of trash was reduced to 500 tons per day, its life could be extended to 2080 or 2090.
But without Fresno's trash -- or the state's permission to stay open with a vastly reduced waste stream -- the county would have to develop a new, expedited shutdown plan.
Currently, there is $63 million in the landfill's reserve fund, officials said. Of that, it would cost an estimated $51 million to close down the facility, plus an additional $16.9 million in ongoing maintenance costs for the next 30 years.
Since those costs exceed the fund, the county's general fund would be hit at some point.
County officials, however, said they should be able to get five-year extensions from the state to continue the landfill's operation. Mark Oldfield, spokesman for CalRecycle, which oversees the state's landfills, said "we've never closed a landfill because of this."
Staying open, however, comes with its own set of challenges. Top of the list is a higher fee to dump trash at the American Avenue landfill. The tipping fee is $23 per ton, which is the lowest by far of any landfill in the region.
Losing Fresno would not only push the fee to more than $41 a ton, but if Fresno went to Fairmead or Avenal, its significant volume could push down rates there, making those facilities more attractive to other municipalities.
"If the city of Fresno is out of our arrangement, are we going to be market-competitive?" Supervisor Andreas Borgeas asked.
The history of the American Avenue landfill has locked the city and county together for two decades.
Back in the 1980s, the county won approval to expand the landfill from 30 acres to 440 acres. The city in the early 1990s committed its trash stream to the landfill, which was required for the county to secure the bond funding to pay for the expansion.
The bonds were paid off in August 2005.
Whether that partnership continues remains in question.
Though Fresno County supervisors more than a week ago directed staff to begin negotiations with the city, as of late Friday afternoon Wiemiller said he had not heard a word from county officials.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.