Split Washington County Board OKs subsidy payment for trash facilityWashington County commissioners delayed a vote on extending the county’s decades-long agreement with a private Newport waste-to-energy facility that processes much of the county’s household garbage but remains heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
By: Jon Avise, Woodbury Bulletin
Washington County commissioners delayed a vote on extending the county’s decades-long agreement with a private Newport waste-to-energy facility that processes much of the county’s household garbage but remains heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
The County Board had been set to vote last week on approval of a renewed three-year agreement with Newport’s Resource Recovery Technologies, or RRT.
The board instead voted 3-2 Tuesday, Sept. 25, to renew the agreement.
For more than 25 years RRT has sorted and processed hundreds of thousands of tons of solid waste each year from Ramsey and Washington counties into burnable fuel.
To do that, however, RRT has relied on millions of dollars in subsidies from both counties, including $75 million since 2006. The public funds are needed because it is cheaper for trash haulers to truck waste to a landfill, officials say, rather than to have it processed into fuel at the Newport facility. The millions of dollars in subsidies are rebates intended to help make up the difference in cost of dumping at RRT for haulers.
Concerns with continuing subsidies to the facility — especially considering the company has for years declined to open their books to county officials, some commissioners said — led the board to delay a vote.
Ramsey County commissioners on Tuesday, Sept. 18, approved the contract 6-1. The renewed, three-year agreement would commit the two counties to contributing a maximum of $8.4 million per year over the next three years to fund hauler rebates at RRT. Washington County’s share would be capped at $2.3 million per year.
Washington County commissioners were divided.
“When they’re asking for a subsidy I think we have every right to see their books,” said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents south Washington County on the board and vote against ratifying the agreement.
Lehrke also was one of two votes against the proposal last month when a joint board of Washington and Ramsey county commissioners voted 6-2 in favor of the plan.
The plan extends the partnership between the east metro counties and RRT for three additional years, from 2013-15, ends direct payments to RRT, caps county subsidies at $8.4 million per year and gives Ramsey and Washington counties the option of purchasing the facility or further extending the agreement in 2015.
A 37-percent charge on top of commercial and residential trash bills in Washington County helps fund the county’s share of costs at the waste-to-fuel plant.
Commissioner Gary Kriesel, of Stillwater, asked to delay the vote, saying he was concerned about the impacts of Washington County rejecting the contract. The plant, he warned, could close — and jobs lost — if both counties didn’t agree to the deal.
“I have absolutely no problem taking this in a different direction,” he said of the longstanding partnership with RRT. “But we need to do some due diligence.”
Kriesel said he doubted the county “has the financial horsepower to go it alone” in waste management.
Lisa Weik, who represents much of Woodbury on the five-person board, expressed legal and environmental concerns with the impacts of a ‘no’ vote by Washington County. Even if it isn’t being enforced, the county would be violating a state mandate that all solid waste be processed, she said, and would, in turn, be sending more unprocessed waste to landfills.
“So, what’s the risk? The risk is if unprocessed waste goes to landfill we could poison the groundwater,” Weik said.
Weik, Kriesel and Commissioner Dennis Hegberg supported the extension.
RRT has turned much of the county’s waste into refuse-derived fuel that is then burned by Xcel Energy since 1986, processing more than 400,000 tons of trash and recycling 20,000 tons of metal per year.
The plant, however, still contends it cannot compete on the open market because of the higher cost of processing waste compared to burying it in a land fill.
Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, whose district includes part of Woodbury, called the arrangement a case of “big government propping up big business.”
“I cannot continue to let Washington County be an enabler with these huge subsidies,” he said, “and I’m going to vote ‘no.’”