For most Sonoma County residents, the garbage goes into the bin and out the door each week almost as an afterthought.
But for nearly a decade that trash — now at about 235,000 tons a year from homes and businesses, excluding recycled material — has created a major financial dilemma for cities and county government.
Together, they face more than $90 million in liabilities for current and former waste sites and the prospect of a continuing pattern of sharp consumer rate hikes to cover those costs, as well as expenses for recycling and other refuse programs.
The latest solution is a 20-year contract worth more than half a billion dollars that would outsource operations of the solid waste system.
It would give control of the county's troubled 42-year-old central landfill west of Cotati to an Arizona company with $8 billion in annual revenue. But it would keep the site, and the county's five waste transfer stations, in public ownership.
The proposal is being called the largest public-private business deal in county history and is headed to the Board of Supervisors for the first time Tuesday.
The agreement would be the latest example of cash-strapped local government outsourcing what was once a core public service. In the case of landfills, that change in operation and ownership began in the Bay Area and elsewhere many years ago.
Sonoma County's latest move, in fact, is an outgrowth of a controversial and ultimately failed attempt to sell the Mecham Road landfill amid what turned out to be a five-year closure, starting in 2005, resulting from water pollution concerns raised by state regulators.
The landfill reopened in late 2010, but only to about half the county's waste stream. The rest goes to a Solano County landfill.
The 20-year contract to permanently reopen and expand the dump — a deal worth an estimated $547 million, according to a county consultant — would go to Arizona-based Republic Services, the country's second-largest solid waste firm, with operations in 38 states. The subcontractor in charge of the five waste transfer stations would be the locally based Ratto Group of Companies, the county's dominant trash hauler.
Supporters say private operation stands to succeed where the county couldn't. It would stabilize and cap annual rate increases, settle solid waste liabilities, expand recycling and ensure the existence of an in-county disposal site for at least the next two decades.
"Everything that has gone into this operations agreement has to do with achieving those goals," said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
Critics, mostly from organized labor, contend it amounts to a lucrative and risky giveaway of a public service to a pair of companies that could run roughshod over the county.
"This is a disaster in the making," said Lathe Gill, area director for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county's largest labor group.
The union represents most of the 26 affected county jobs at the landfill. The county has kept positions open in other departments to retain some of those employees while Republic has promised to hire at least 15 of the landfill workers, the majority of them cashiers, on a full-time basis for at least six months. Few if any county layoffs are anticipated.