January 6, 2011 in City

County leaders balk at city’s timeline for waste plant

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Eric Vangemert, 41, operates the hand controls in the crane pulpit at the Waste-to-Energy Plant on the West Plains. Vangemert uses paddles to mix the garbage in the pit below his perch. Spokane city officials want county commissioners to sign off on $18 million worth of upgrades to the facility, including the crane controls.
(Full-size photo)

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Establishing a garbage democracy in Spokane County may prove as difficult as bringing representative government to Afghanistan.

The challenge came into sharp focus Tuesday when Spokane city officials asked county commissioners to hurry up and sign off on $18 million worth of upgrades to the city’s Waste-to-Energy Plant.

The work is intended to position the incinerator for 20 more years of operation, but commissioners want to consider other possibilities and are reluctant to give up their limited leverage. Although the city owns and controls the plant, it must get county approval for the proposed expenditure.

City officials have shown little interest in commissioners’ call for transferring control of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System to a health-district-style coalition. Instead, the city offers a system in which it would have veto power.

Meanwhile, commissioners and at least some leaders of the county’s smaller cities want to avoid any action that would increase costs or limit future options.

A Spokane proposal to overhaul the plant and settle a contract dispute could do both. So commissioners balked Tuesday when city officials sought their approval in time for City Council action Monday.

“It’s not fair,” Commissioner Mark Richard said. “You wouldn’t ask your council to make this decision in a week.”

Actually, that’s about all the notice the City Council will get, City Attorney Howard Delaney replied.

“In the end, they get the asset, so maybe it’s not so much of a concern for them,” Richard said.

Contracts that created the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System call for the city to retain ownership of the Waste-to-Energy Plant even though county ratepayers helped pay for it.

Commissioners planned to receive a more detailed report this morning on how the plant improvements would affect the $98-a-ton “tipping fee” the plant charges to process garbage.

Commissioners had hoped for a substantial fee reduction this year when 20-year construction bonds are paid off. Debt service has accounted for about half of the $98 fee.

However, the most optimistic city projection shows the proposed improvements will drive the rate up to more than $109 if paid off by the end of 2014 – when commissioners hope to have a new governance system in place.

“Unless the governance changes, the county isn’t willing to commit beyond 2014,” when the county’s contract with the Solid Waste System expires, Richard said.

Delaney countered that, if the new debt is spread over a longer period, the county and other cities would have to pay it only as long as they remain in the system.

He said the issue is urgent because Wheelabrator Spokane’s contract to operate the plant expires Nov. 16.

Not only would the planned overhaul extend the trash burner’s life, it could drive down operating costs by encouraging other companies to compete for a new contract to operate the plant.

Delaney said two other companies might bid on the job if Wheelabrator would agree to drop a clause in its current contract that allows it to take over a rival’s winning bid.

He said city engineers agree the improvements and repairs are needed, but the work is a condition of a tentative deal to eliminate the “first right of refusal” clause to renew Wheelabrator’s contract through 2014.

If the deal isn’t approved right away, the city needs to take its dispute with Wheelabrator to court and immediately seek operating proposals from other companies, Delaney said.

“The time for study doesn’t exist,” he said.

It would be necessary to mothball the plant for a year to study other garbage disposal methods, and city officials aren’t willing to do that, Delaney told commissioners.

If paid over three years, the waste plant renovations would add an estimated $18.75 to the tipping fee. If spread over 15 years, the increase would be about $5 a ton.

Russ Menke, director of the Solid Waste System, said two other issues contribute heavily to the potential increase in operating costs.

One is the likelihood that Puget Sound Energy will no longer pay a premium for the electricity the waste plant generates.

Menke said Puget agreed to pay about 8  1/2 cents per kilowatt-hour to avoid building a new generation plant of its own, but demand has declined and a new plant is no longer needed.

Unless state and federal lawmakers can be persuaded to declare garbage-generated electricity “renewable,” the Waste-to-Energy Plant’s power income will drop to approximately 5  1/2 cents per kilowatt-hour, Menke said.

Renewable power fetches about 10 cents, and laws force utility companies to buy it.

“Unless we get approval for renewable electric rates from the Legislature, we’re in trouble,” Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple said last week in a Solid Waste Liaison Committee meeting.

Menke estimated the likely drop in electricity income would add $12.73 per ton to the garbage processing fee.

He said the other major contributor to escalating costs is city officials’ plan to levy a 20 percent utility tax on garbage and a 6 percent tax on electricity next year when an annexation brings the Waste-to-Energy Plant inside city limits.

The utility taxes will add $19.60 to the tipping fee, Menke estimated.

Delaney said city officials plan to share the tax with Solid Waste System members according to how much garbage they contribute.

Member governments could return the money to their constituents if they wish, Delaney said.

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