GIRARD — The SEK Recycling Center is at a crossroads. If they don't get help and get it fast, then what help they provide to county residents could soon come to an end.
"Rather than see the operation completely disappear, we'd like to be allowed to pursue alternatives. We've got to make payroll. If we can't make payroll, we can't ask people to come to work," said Dr. Jim Triplett, chairman of the SEK Recycling Center board of directors and the chairman of the Crawford County Solid Waste Planning Committee. "Over the next month, we'll have very significant changes one way or another."
Some of those changes have already gone into effect, like reducing the number of days available to the public from five days to three and cutting the staff from 12 to five.
"We just made payroll on the 24th, and we'll probably just barely make it on the 7th. After that, I don't know," Triplett said. "The commodities with high value have marched off into the private sector."
Take, for instance, the issue of clothes. Typically a more valuable commodity, Triplett said there are a number of reasons those have moved away from SEK Recycling Center.
Triplett noted the presence of PlanetAid boxes, which he said go to a for-profit company that does not send most of its profits to the needy. Second, Triplett said that the local Salvation Army has decided to move its clothing operations from SEK Recycling Center to the Salvation Army in Joplin. Further, there is also a clothes company from Kansas City that has also made more of a presence in Southeast Kansas.
"We've been pushed out of that market, pretty much. There are still a few loyal thrift shops. But we've lost enough income to account for two employees just to that," Triplett said.
Another top commodity, cardboard, has maintained its value, Triplett said, but a company out of Joplin is now pushing them out of the market with "shiny, blue boxes."
That has pushed SEK Recycling into more of the sectors without much profit margin, like glass, which can see even what little profit exists go toward the cost of preparing and shipping the materials.
SEK Recycling is now at a point of making tough decisions based upon its "new normal," Triplett said.
"Three years ago, we were doing well. We took cardboard, clothes and commodities. We set aside an emergency fund of $50,000 in a money market account. We also had $30,000-$40,000 in cash flow. We made advance payments on our mortgage to get an advance on our overhead costs," Triplett said. "All that's gone. In fact, we're operating on a $50,000 line of credit from the bank."
However, the center still has a number of assets, and it is also seeking out help where it can. Triplett noted the unique nature of SEK Recycling, in that it's the only self-supporting recycling center in the state. The closest one, he said, is in Wichita, which the city provides at no cost and doesn't handle the materials that SEK Recycling does.
Triplett said that the current budget shows an expected loss of $5,000 a month, which would lead to closing except for one day a week and cutting the number of employees to two, as well as reducing the types of accepted materials.
"Another alternative would be to provide some amount of support," Triplett suggested.
Other counties and cities, he said, that have taken over recycling have placed a special assessment on taxes. Further, he said it "doesn't take a whole lot to support $5,000 a month."
Triplett noted a few other complications, including the "green fence" that China has put up on commodities, which keeps the price low. He also mentioned a desire to keep out of debt, and asked the commissioners for any suggestions.
"I'm gathering that unless the market improves, the future doesn't look good," said commissioner Bob Kmiec.
"If the people in the city and the county want it, they'll have to come up with a way to support it," Triplett said. "Five thousand a month is a whole lot less than if the county had to take it over with all the assets. It'd cost the county a whole lot more."
Commissioners said they would talk with other local officials, as well as discuss alternatives, and come up with an answer at a pending meeting.
The next meeting of the county commission will be on Jan. 3, 2014.