Trash haulers, lured during the past year by low tipping fees, are trucking much of the county's commercial waste to privately run landfills in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Because of this exodus, county residents will have to pay more to have their trash collected this year.
Anne Arundel County is proposing a $28 increase in the fee for residential trash pickup to make up for the $3 million shortfall in fees lost because commercial waste was diverted from the Millersville landfill.
The commercial tipping fee, $55 a ton and set to rise to $60 a ton, has traditionally subsidized residential collection and helped keep household fees low, said public works Director John Brusnighan. Tipping fees in landfills in neighboring states are averaging $30 a ton.
By keeping the tipping fee artificially high and unresponsive to market forces, the county can't compete with privately run landfills.
"I think the citizens have to understand that it is an enterprise fund," which is self-sustaining, Mr. Brusnighan told the County Council during a budget hearing last week.
Therefore, if one source of revenue goes down, such as the tipping fees paid by commercial haulers, another -- in this case household collection fees -- has to go up, he said.
Representatives from the waste industry confirmed that high tipping fees are forcing them to look elsewhere for the best disposal price.
"The only reason that we would go out of state is because of the price," said Eric Benzer of Eastern Waste Industries, one of the county's larges commercial haulers.
It is basically the large haulers -- EWI, Waste Management of Maryland and Browning-Ferris Industries -- that have the volume and the ability to repackage trash into larger containers headed out of state.
Mr. Benzer said that companies have to consider the costs of gasoline, wear and tear on vehicles and labor to decide if it is worthwhile to ship trash.
When haulers take those costs into consideration and still think it worthwhile to ship trash across state lines, "you get a feeling of how high local tipping fees are," he said.
With regional tipping fees at $30 a ton and most municipal fees at between $40 and $60 a ton, "you don't have to be a math whiz to see the savings cheaper disposal provides to our customers and our shareholders," he said.
Maryland, one of the few states that almost exclusively has publicly owned landfills, has only one private facility, in Allegany County, said Pam Metz, executive director of the Maryland Delaware Solid Waste Association.
"The commercial hauling and disposal industry has always been very price-sensitive," she said.
"Contrary to the public's perception, profit margins in the collection industry are not very large."
Mr. Brusnighan said the drop in commercial disposal has both good and bad aspects.
"It's bad news because we chased away $3 million in revenue," he said.
The good news is that the situation extends the life of the Millersville landfill, which is expected to reach capacity in 2007.
Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat, said she prefers to focus on that positive news.
"I think our goal should be to push them out," she said at last week's public hearing. "To me, it's all good news. The more they take out, the better off we are, and I think we should maintain that."
The county budgeted for 190,000 tons of commercial waste this year, but will take in only about 140,000 tons.
The 50,000-ton shortfall leads to a $2.7 million loss in revenue. County officials are estimating they will collect 135,000 tons of commercial waste this year but realize the figure could drop.
"It depends on how much the $5 increase for the tipping fee will translate into a commercial reduction," said James Pittman, director of solid waste management.
Most of Anne Arundel's neighbors do not seem to be experiencing similar declines in commercial waste.
Officials in Howard County said they don't have a transfer facility that would enable a hauler to combine smaller loads into a cost-efficient truck load.
In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, the landfills are used only for waste that can't be burned in the BRESCO incinerator in South Baltimore.