February 4, 2011 in City, News

Garbage deal taking shape with proposal for regional board

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Public officials throughout Spokane County agreed Thursday to create a new regional garbage-disposal system that might not use Spokane’s Waste-to-Energy Plant.

A host of thorny details are to be worked out by a committee, but the basic framework is a regional board with authority to contract with Spokane or any other service provider.

“I think you end up with a much more honest relationship,” said Lowell “Duke” Kuehn, a strategic planning consultant and retired sociology professor who moderated Thursday’s discussion.

The session at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley was the culmination of a two-day Solid Waste Summit.

The die was cast when Kuehn posed the question of forming a representative board with power to control the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, which is now controlled by Spokane and Spokane County.

“Why not just do that?” Kuehn asked. “What’s wrong with that?”

Support was overwhelming. Even Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and other members of the city’s delegation found merit in the idea.

“You won’t find any disagreement from me that we need a new business model going forward,” but details of a new arrangement will require “some heavy lifting,” Verner said.

She said the current system is “broken” because county commissioners have been able to veto needed rate hikes.

Commissioner Mark Richard said rate increases were denied because county officials felt the city-operated garbage-disposal system wasn’t sufficiently accountable to members.

Also, he said, commissioners forced the system to draw down its reserves to avoid leaving Spokane “a sack of cash … when we walk.”

Under the new system, every member government will have a seat on the board of directors. Voting is to be weighted in some fashion, perhaps by the amount of garbage residents contribute.

If Spokane chooses to join the system, it could be a service vendor as well as a voting member.

The city would continue to own the Waste-to-Energy Plant and transfer stations in Spokane Valley and Colbert – as guaranteed by current contracts. But the new solid waste system wouldn’t be obligated to use Spokane’s facilities or services.

Spokane would have to compete with private contractors.

That may be a tall order, given sketchy comparisons that suggest long-haul landfills are much less expensive.

However, Verner said the city’s electricity-generating incinerator may be more competitive in a comparison that filters out recycling and other subsidized services.

The Spokane delegation won some sympathy with pleas for a transition that helps the city waste plant become more competitive.

Whether that translates into support for a three-year extension of Wheelabrator Spokane’s contract to operate the Waste-to-Energy Plant is an open question. The current contract expires in November.

The proposed extension would remove contract terms that discourage other operators from bidding in the future, but would require $18 million worth of plant improvements.

On Tuesday, county commissioners will consider whether to allow the expenditure. They’ll have to decide whether to saddle the new system with long-term debt or try to find some alternative.

When the Spokane Valley delegation caucused Thursday, Public Works Director Neil Kersten suggested offering Wheelabrator a one-year extension with no modifications.

City Manager Mike Jackson said Spokane Valley must insist on no new bond debt.

As the summit concluded, Verner and Spokane County Commission Chairman Al French circulated a signup sheet for the committee that is to hammer out details of the new system.

Verner called for a draft in six weeks, and Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman wanted a final report by June.

Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley must decide by the end of the year whether to extend their expiring contracts with the solid waste system.


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