Missouri's Solid Waste Management Districts got overwhelming support from officials around the state during a four-hour legislative hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Last spring, state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, proposed eliminating the state's 20 regional districts and turning their work over to the state Natural Resources department.
He argued the work the districts do promoting ways to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills was important in the early 1990s - but now is being replaced by for-profit companies.
Other lawmakers disagreed with Schaefer last spring, so the Legislature created a Joint Committee on Solid Waste Management District Operations to study the issue and recommend law changes if needed by the end of this year.
Schaefer is one of the Senate's five members on the joint committee and the only Mid-Missourian on the panel.
He repeated his concern during questions with several of Tuesday's witnesses.
But witness after witness told the 10-member committee that the program's strength is its regional nature.
"The suggestion that all funds go to DNR is a little disturbing," said Lyndon Lawson, Joplin's new operations manager. "Local communities are better informed of how money is spent at the local level."
Maries County Presiding Commissioner Ray Schwartze told the committee: "We're very rural, low-income county. We could not survive without the solid waste districts. ...
"I hope this meeting will help us improve something that's already working."
A 1990 state law created the solid waste regions.
A state "tipping" fee charged for each ton of waste taken to a landfill was given to DNR, which kept some of the money for its operations and divided the rest among the districts, based on a complicated formula that includes regional population and the presence of a landfill in the region.
That fee began at $1.50 a ton. It now is $2.11.
Schaefer said last spring that charge is too high, and a state audit report last week said Missouri's charge is higher than most of the surrounding states.
But several witnesses argued the fee really should be higher, to encourage more recycling efforts instead of putting more trash in landfills.
Communities, businesses and organizations like sheltered workshops all can apply for grants that the regional solid waste districts distribute.
"Moniteau, Cooper and Howard counties would not have a recycling program were it not for these grants," said Kit Brewer, who helps run a sheltered workshop program in Boonville that recycles materials from the three counties.
"Our operations are going to do about 3.3 million pounds of diversion," keeping recyclable materials out of landfills, he said.
David Robnak of the Central Paper Stock recycling company in St. Louis said the regional solid waste districts communicate better than the state does.
"Years ago I applied for a (state) grant, was denied and never got a follow-up," he explained. "I applied for regional grants, and I got feedback" about what needed to be improved when a regional district rejected an application.
"The local offices know what is realistic, and also know the good apples from the bad apples," he added, noting lawmakers are elected from throughout the state, to represent their districts in Jefferson City, rather than having only state officials make decisions for all parts of Missouri.
After the four-hour hearing, Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, said: "I think the Solid Waste Management Districts feel that they are very efficient and perform a worthwhile service.
"One of the things that we found out is that some of the administration fees vary quite a bit from the different districts."
Wallingford was named the committee's chairman at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, with Rep. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, elected as vice chairman.
The committee will meet again in November.