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Trash debate exposes split on board

Washington County commissioners approval of a new agreement with a Newport facility to processes the bulk of the county's garbage exposed an election year division over what the role the county should take in waste management.

County Board members last week approved the contract with Resource Recovery Technologies, or RRT, by a 3-2 vote, during a meeting Tuesday, Sept. 25. The agreement extends the partnership between Washington and Ramsey counties and the Newport waste-to-energy processing plant from 2013-15, ends direct county 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.

Washington County will contribute a maximum of $2.3 million per year toward rebates that are paid to waste haulers who transport garbage to the Newport plant, under the deal. Ramsey County Board members OK'd the agreement last month.

Those subsidies had been at the heart of heated Washington County Board debate that led commissioners to delay a vote on the agreement. The subsidies are necessary, officials said, to bring down the cost for haulers of dumping at RRT, where it is more expensive than transporting waste to a landfill.

Some commissioners, including Gary Kriesel, of Stillwater, said the county should continue to support the current arrangement, keeping waste out of landfills while exploring other options. The county had no viable waste plan in place without the RRT agreement, he told the board.

Of the subsidies, Kriesel said, "It's the price we pay to divert waste out of landfills."

Commissioners Autumn Lehrke, who represents south Washington County, and Bill Pulkrabek, of Oakdale, voted against the agreement. They said they could not support extending the county's joint contract with RRT while the company continued to decline to reveal financial details of their business.

The agreement, Pulkrabek also said, is propping up a business that would not survive without heavy taxpayer investment. Washington and Ramsey counties have paid $75 million in subsidies since 2006 to the facility.

"RRT would rather close their plant than show us their books," Lehrke said. "What is in there that's so bad - what are they hiding - that they won't show us their need?"

Costs of exiting

A 'no' vote by the board could have wrought expensive consequences. Washington County would have strayed from its state-approved waste management plan, a move that could have meant the loss of $850,000 in state waste management and recycling funds, according to a letter from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to Washington County officials.

RRT representatives also contended that rejection of the new contract by Washington County would force the Newport facility to close, along with Xcel Energy power plants in Red Wing and Mankato that burn the refuse-derived fuel produced at the plant.

That would have cost roughly 100 jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property tax revenues for local governments, including $95,000 in taxes paid annually to the city of Newport.

More than one million tons of Ramsey and Washington county garbage that would have been processed by RRT would have ended up in area landfills, as well, said Chris Gondeck, the company's chief operating officer.

Officials from the city of Newport lobbied County Board members to approve the new contract, with Mayor Tim Geraghty telling the board last week that he feared the impact of the plant's closure and loss of tax revenue.

Commissioner Lisa Weik, who represents much of Woodbury, and Board Chair Dennis Hegberg voted with Kriesel to approve the contract. Weik said the choice was really no choice at all -- a 'no' vote would put the county in violation of a state mandate that all municipal waste be processed, even if that directive isn't currently being enforced by the MPCA.

And, purchasing the plant, as the counties have an option to do at the expiration of the new deal in 2015, would mean taxpayers would assume the risk that comes with operating a waste processing plant, and would take the facility off county tax rolls, she said.

"I think it's a good thing to have a public-private partnership in some things," Hegberg, of Forest Lake, said. "And, this is one of those areas."