Wisconsin community hosting Afghan evacuee camp gets a mountain of trash, stuck with the bill

Wisconsin community hosting Afghan evacuee camp gets a mountain of trash, stuck with the bill

It turns out that adding 13,000 Afghan evacuees — a small city’s worth of people — to a local community can stress things out a bit.

For one thing, there’s the trash. A lot more of it.

At Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where 13,000 evacuees were held for months, the foam containers used to serve three meals a day added tons of trash to Monroe County’s landfill, said Cedric Schnitzler, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. The eight to 10 additional truckloads each week mean the landfill will reach capacity “significantly quicker” than the county had planned.

And then there’s the revenue.

Local officials said federal officials can make purchases tax-free, which means diapers and baby formula bought off the shelves to supply the families didn’t net the locals anything.

That also goes for the local occupancy tax. Sparta, the biggest city in Monroe County, had to dip into its reserves to make up for the lost revenue, Mr. Schnitzler said.

“I would never say that it’s been a burden as far as to Monroe County. It’s definitely challenging, but as a county, county government, at least in Wisconsin, is all about service,” Mr. Schnitzler told The Washington Times.

Now the question is who’s going to pay.

Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany said the federal government should cover the costs it created.

“The Biden administration is taking advantage of the good faith and the goodwill of people like in Monroe County,” the Wisconsin Republican told The Times. “These people are going to do the very best they can, and the people in the Biden administration know that. They took advantage of that good faith effort they knew would happen.”

Fort McCoy is one of eight military bases in the U.S. where the Biden administration deposited some 76,000 evacuees after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

As of this week, more than 66,000 had been processed and resettled in communities. The remaining 9,000 or so are at three bases. In addition to Fort McCoy, they are Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Fort Pickett in Virginia.

Camps at five locations were shut down after all of the Afghans there were processed: Fort Bliss, Texas; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Camp Atterbury, Indiana; and Quantico Marine Corps Base and Fort Lee in Virginia.

Resettlement efforts have been tricky. Some analysts suggest things were tougher than anticipated because the Biden administration botched the withdrawal by evacuating the wrong people.

Billed as an airlift for those who helped American troops in the 20-year war effort, the evacuation instead mostly brought out people who were able to make it to the airport as Kabul fell to the Taliban. U.S. resettlement experts, who had been preparing for English-speaking translators, suddenly found themselves grappling with shopkeepers and professionals who didn’t speak English, making the transition to American life more complicated.

There have also been reports of Afghans walking off the bases and disappearing into communities.

The entire airlift operation was established quickly, and local officials were left scrambling to figure out how they could help and what would be asked of them.

As one measure of the chaos, Fort McCoy initially said its capacity to house evacuees was 10,000. Days later, the Biden administration ordered it to take 13,000.

For a county with a population of 45,000 — and whose biggest cities top out at 10,000 people — it was a major lift.

Mr. Schnitzler said they initially treated the news of the coming evacuees as a security question. Then they quickly realized health officials needed to figure out how to get more vaccines, social services folks would have to be ready to sign up evacuees for income support or the state’s BadgerCare health care program, and the medical examiner needed to be on call for any deaths.

Absorbing the impact was likely easier in places like Burlington County in New Jersey, where 11,000 evacuees at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst were less of a shock among the county’s 450,000 residents.

But Nottoway County in Virginia — population of about 15,000, hosts Fort Pickett, which peaked at about 6,000 evacuees. Nottoway officials didn’t respond to inquiries for this article.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Operation Allies Welcome, said communities have been critical to the effort’s success.

“Operation Allies Welcome has made incredible progress over the last five months, and we are thankful for the support that veterans, faith groups, and people across the country have shown our Afghan allies as they join their new communities,” the department said in a statement to The Times.

Homeland Security said weekly meetings are held with community leaders to address developments and any concerns the locals raise.

Whether the Biden administration is open to a conversation about recompense is not clear. Officials said it was a question for the White House budget office, which didn’t respond to an inquiry for this report.

All sides agree that the military people running the bases where camps were set up have been professional with handling the situation.

“The people that were in charge there were doing yeoman’s work,” Mr. Tiffany said.

Still, he said, the federal government must pick up the tab for the impact on local communities.

Monroe County Administrator Tina Osterberg said they are still tallying the lost revenue and extra landfill impact.

“At this time, Monroe County has had some meetings informing officials that we have had fiscal impacts, but we do not have a clear picture of the totality of these impacts,” she said in an email.

Fort McCoy said it took steps to alleviate the landfill situation. It donated machines to help compact the additional waste and started working on a contract to send trash to a power-generating station instead of the county landfill.

Mr. Tiffany said he hopes the federal government comes up with cash for communities that have hosted evacuee camps. He said it should happen before the Biden administration releases millions of dollars in assistance for Afghanistan.

That money was halted when the Taliban took control, but the administration recently said it would unfreeze the money.

“What I’m saying to the Biden administration at this point is, ‘Just take a little bit of that money and give it to Monroe County and make it whole before you send it to Afghanistan,’” Mr. Tiffany said.

Trash and money are visible effects, but officials said communities have had to figure out a lot of things with evacuees, such as dealing with measles outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide alert last year for clinicians to also be on the lookout for mumps, malaria and leishmaniasis cases among evacuees.

There have also been some criminal entanglements, with scattered reports of robbery, theft, assault and even child molestation.

A 24-year-old Afghan evacuee housed at Quantico was convicted this week of sexual assault. Marines at the camp said they saw him kissing and groping a girl through her clothes, all over her body. She tried to push him away, but he pulled her back.

A Marine investigator said Mohammed Tariq described his behavior as “really normal” in his culture, according to court documents.

Military officials say the overall rates of reported criminal activity were lower than what would be expected in the general U.S. population.