Taxpayers in Washington County were handed back $450,000 in annual savings when the County Board voted last week to reduce fees charged for solid waste disposal.

"We're recognizing that the amount of money we're collecting from the taxpayers is more than we need," Commissioner Fran Miron said. Residents will begin seeing a savings on their garbage collection bills in July.

The move was possible because an improving economy was producing more revenue than expected, said Judy Hunter, a senior program manager in the county's Public Health and Environment division. Because the reduction takes effect six months into the fiscal year, the overall savings this year will be $225,000, she said.

The savings came in a decision to reduce the county environmental charge from 37.5 percent of each resident's garbage collection bill to 35 percent, a rate nearing prerecession levels. Subsidies paid to haulers will remain the same, at $28 a ton, to deliver garbage to Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) in Newport, where it's burned to make fuel for two Xcel Energy plants.

The county's financial commitment to recycling also will remain the same, Hunter said. The savings will show up in reduced contributions to the county's solid waste reserve fund, she said.

Possibly this spring, Washington and Ramsey counties could decide whether to buy RRT, now a private operation. The subsidy to haulers represents the difference in costs between hauling to the Newport plant vs. disposal at out-of-state landfills that might not meet environmental standards. State law requires counties to provide for processing rather than use open dumps that could threaten groundwater.

"There isn't one solution for everything," Hunter said of possible changes to solid waste policy. "We need an integrated system of waste reduction, recycling, composting and processing."

Some Washington County residents oppose the county contract with RRT, saying it's a "garbage tax" and wasteful spending. One of them is Matt Behning of Stillwater, who told the County Board last week that using "safe landfills" would save money.

"I don't think there's any benefit when we're subsidizing an industry that can't survive on its own," he said.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel said he didn't oppose using a "state-of-the-art" landfill, but Washington County doesn't have one. "The ultimate goal is to protect our underground water resources, which are increasingly being threatened," he said.

Commissioner Ted Bearth said he remembers how solid waste was buried decades ago in Oakdale and that was considered safe. "The lesson I've learned is that we have to be awfully careful of what we put in the ground," he said.

Commissioner Autumn Lehrke said that residents concerned about costs of garbage disposal could promote recycling. Counties have a vested interest in encouraging more residential recycling because of updated state objectives requiring that nearly half of all households must recycle by 2015. State standards will require as much as 60 percent by 2030.

"The right thing to do is to give is back to the taxpayers," said Lehrke, who said the County Board has worked hard to keep taxes low.