December 7, 2010 in City

Garbage talks hinge on control

County leaders want more independence from city
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Contracts expiring

Coming to terms on a new agreement is urgent because the system’s contracts with Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake expire next year. Other contracts, including Spokane County’s, continue through 2013.

City and county officials agree they want to retain a regional garbage-disposal system when expiring contracts begin dissolving the current arrangement next year.

But Spokane County and other member governments are unwilling to let the city of Spokane maintain full control of the system, which determines garbage rates countywide.

County commissioners and Spokane city leaders have exchanged draft agreements that would extend varying degrees of control to member governments.

Commissioners envision an independent corporation that gives each member a vote while city officials propose an “alliance” in which Spokane has veto power.

The city wants a “safe harbor” provision that essentially would allow it to force out any member who won’t back down after a veto.

“The city is the system. … We own it,” City Attorney Howard Delaney said Monday in a meeting of a liaison board that represents member governments.

The Spokane proposal also calls for voting based on each jurisdiction’s population.

If other governments want an independent corporation, they should put it to a public vote quickly, Delaney suggested. And if Spokane loses too much control, then the system should buy its assets, he added.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said the county bowed to the city’s desire to retain ownership of the waste-to-energy plant. Now, though, city officials worry that the plant would become a liability if an independent corporation declined to use it.

Commissioners also have some potential liabilities they would like to pass to the regional system: the closed Colbert, Mica and Greenacres landfills.

Mielke complained that the city wants the alliance to be responsible for Spokane’s closed landfills but not Spokane County’s – even though residents throughout the county probably contributed to all the landfills.

City and county officials agreed, though, that they can never be free of liability for their own landfills. It would be possible, they conceded, to devise a system that would generate money for ongoing maintenance of all the closed landfills without accepting liability for unknown problems.

In fact, the current system provided landfill-closure money to both Spokane and Spokane County. The arrangement, under a complicated 20-year-old compromise, was unfamiliar to many current liaison board members.

Coming to terms on a new agreement is urgent because the system’s contracts with Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake expire next year. Other contracts, including Spokane County’s, continue through 2013.

Mielke suggested extending the expiring contracts through 2013, and Delaney said that “certainly makes sense.”

Spokane Valley City Councilman Gary Schimmels was amenable. He said Spokane Valley wants to stay in a regional system, and he thinks a new agreement is “not that far off.”

Meanwhile, Wheelabrator, the company that operates the waste-to-energy plant, is seeking a new contract with the solid waste system.

The liaison board scheduled a meeting next week to discuss that issue.


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