Wright County residents no longer saddled by waste surcharge

by John Holler

It may not seem like a Christmas present, but when you no longer have to pay for something you used to, it may seem like it. 2012 was the last year the Wright County Board put a solid waste surcharge on tax statements of country residents, forcing them to pay the freight for the ill-fated county compost facility constructed in 1991, which, almost from the start, was doomed to failure.

Following the Dec. 24 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, Board Chairman Pat Sawatzke discussed the facility that saddled county residents with paying off a $14 million facility that closed within five years of construction beginning.

“It’s been frustrating for a long time — very frustrating,” Sawatzke said. “When you’re asking taxpayers for dollars, you have to justify them. Your taxes are going toward something positive. For more than 15 years, we were taxing residents to pay off the bonds and they got very little if anything back in value for that tax charge.”

In a national groundswell surrounding the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, County Commissioners Paul McAlpine and Arlyn Nelson traveled to Europe to tour compost facilities. They came back excited about making Wright County a pilot project for similar waste recycling in the U.S. Almost from the beginning, the projections didn’t connect from waste in Europe to waste in the United States.

“The waste stream was much different back then in terms of the amount of plastic in our waste system,” Sawatzke said. “In the 20 years since, it’s gotten drastically worse in the amount of plastic that goes in the waste stream that isn’t compostable. That facility would have even more trouble succeeding now than it did then and, as we all know, it didn’t succeed then either.”

What made the composting concept almost a self-fulfilling failure was that it never met the quality standards for compost that would make it a profitable enterprise. Where the concept went financially into deep red was that, once built, it got the county into the private business realm. Garbage haulers were required to bring their waste to the county’s facility and the tipping fees were excessive. In Southern Minnesota, haulers drove their loads to Iowa, where costs were low enough to make the extra transport costs worthwhile. Wright County got embroiled in legal battles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the county never won in the end. It was becoming a money pit.

“Back in the 1990s, county boards were mandated to manage waste streams,” Sawatzke said. “When Wright County got into composting, we weren’t alone. I believe there were eight facilities around the state that were similar. I don’t think any of them are still in business.”

When the facility finally shut down, the result was property owners being assessed a solid waste surcharge fee, which ranged from $20-45 a year. It wasn’t a back-breaking bill, but it was a bill that provided nothing but paying off a debt that provided very little in the way of bang for the buck. Wright County taxpayers will grumble when cutting checks for country services in 2014, but one thing they won’t have is to kick in on the bonds for the compost facility. Those days are finally over.

“The reality is that previous county boards stuck future county boards with the responsibility to pay off those bonds,” Sawatzke said. “In hindsight, that decision was a poor decision. Was it a mistake? In retrospect, it certainly was. There were other options at the time, but the county board made a decision and we had to back that up. I’m just glad that, after all these years, those payments have been made and we’re done with it.”

In items on the Dec. 24 agenda, the board:

REFERRED to the leadership committee a request to have Weight Watchers meetings in the county courthouse. A similar proposal was made in 2009, but was shot down because there were concerns about the time away from work required for the meetings and, if county meeting rooms were opened to for-profit organizations, it could create a flood of similar requests once a precedent was set. The proposal is for a 12-week pilot project, that, if successful, would continue. The county already has approved yoga classes, but they come after the work day is completed. There are union considerations about using lunch and break time for such meetings, as well as employees who are away from the county courthouse travelling to and from the meetings. The county currently has a policy that meeting rooms in the courthouse are only available to non-profit organizations and the proposal would alter that policy. The commissioners expressed some concern as to why such a proposal was made at a leadership committee meeting that the county board wasn’t involved, since the board would have to change established policy to do so. The item was laid over until the Jan. 7 meeting of the leadership committee, a meeting that the full county board will attend.

AUTHORIZED County Coordinator Lee Kelly to send a letter to Sherburne County concerning discussion over Sherburne’s decision to get out of the River Riders program. Currently the two counties have a joint powers agreement to administer the program, but Sherburne County executed a 180-day termination clause. The letter will be requesting a meeting because Wright County intends to continue the program and 80 percent of the funding costs are provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In the end, MnDOT will likely have a significant voice in how the dissolution of the joint powers agreement will take place.

INSTRUCTED Kelly to contact the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust regarding potential liability issues concerning the implementation of purchasing workout equipment for employees who want to use a workout facility on county property.

REFERRED discussion of the disrepair of shower facilities at the county jail to the next building committee meeting. The issue has been that not only are showers in use showing signs of deterioration, so are the showers that are in pods in the county jail that haven’t been used. It seems like a clear design flaw and the county is looking to assess its options on how to proceed with getting the flaw corrected.

Contact John Holler at sunpressnews@ecm-inc.com