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Mayor now says she’ll attend waste summit

Tue., Feb. 1, 2011

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner reversed course Monday and said she will attend this week’s Solid Waste Summit after all.

Verner had said she thought the city and Spokane County were so far apart on how to restructure the regional garbage-disposal system, which processes all trash collected countywide, that attendance would have been a waste of time.

However, Verner brought a peace offering to an 8 a.m. meeting with county commissioners: She agreed not to exercise a contract clause that requires the county to remain part of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System as long as the city wishes.

Verner also reiterated a previous offer to waive a disputed requirement that the county continue paying a portion of a proposed $18 million upgrade of the Waste-to-Energy Plant if the county drops out of the system.

“I think we’ve addressed your major issues,” Verner told commissioners, but they wanted assurance that the offer would apply to other system members.

In exchange, Verner called for prompt county approval of the waste-plant improvements, which are part of a proposed three-year extension of Wheelabrator Spokane’s contract to operate the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

Commissioners have little control over the Solid Waste System, which is owned and operated by the city, but their approval is required for capital expenditures in excess of $1 million.

The Wheelabrator contract extension is urgent because it settles a legal dispute, and the current agreement expires Nov. 6.

Verner didn’t get the nod she said she hoped for from commissioners. They agreed to take up the issue at their regular meeting next Tuesday but were wary of giving up what Chairman Al French described as their leverage to compel timely resolution of other issues.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said he wanted to see how the contract would affect rates, and Commissioner Mark Richard said he wasn’t comfortable creating a rate increase for anyone who remains in the system.

Commissioners’ desire to consider alternatives to the Waste-to-Energy Plant, including long-haul landfills, was an unspoken elephant in the room Monday.

“That’s clearly going to be on the table” in the two-day summit Wednesday and Thursday, French said in an interview.

There was agreement, though, that the county won’t challenge the city’s ownership of the Waste-to-Energy Plant and transfer stations.

French said he had an “aha moment” last week when city and county lawyers agreed that ownership is irrelevant to utility taxes Spokane wants to impose on the electricity-generating incinerator.

Spokane had offered to tax the entire system and share the proceeds with member governments – including the county, which lacks authority to impose a utility tax.

Now, French said, each member city can decide whether to tax its residents, and commissioners don’t want to tax constituents in unincorporated areas.

There also was agreement on Verner’s suggestion to form a “sidebar” committee to hammer out details of a new governance system and commissioners’ wish for money to manage closed landfills.

Verner wanted a small committee of Spokane and Spokane County officials, but commissioners insisted that smaller cities should be invited to participate.

“We have more interests, we have more concerns with what happens throughout the region,” Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing said. “We want more involvement.”

If small cities want more participation in the Solid Waste System, they had “better be prepared to accept more responsibility,” Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan said.

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