January 7, 2011 in City

County proposes garbage summit

Officials seek accord for regional system
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Contract expiring

 Wheelabrator Spokane’s contract to run the Waste-to-Energy Plant expires Nov. 16, and city officials want to extend it for three years.

 The extension would eliminate a clause that discourages future competitive bidding. In exchange, Wheelabrator would be hired for $18 million worth of improvements.

 The expenditure requires county approval, and commissioners indicated Thursday that they won’t sign off without written concessions from Spokane. They agreed to pursue an amendment to their contract with the city in case the proposed summit fails.

Public officials are seeking a “fast-track” decision on who should control the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System.

County commissioners Thursday accepted Spokane Mayor Mary Verner’s call for an agreement within 30 days.

In turn, commissioners proposed a two-day summit to outline a framework.

If Verner and elected officials of the county’s other cities agree, the Solid Waste Summit might occur Feb. 2 and 3 at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley.

Commissioners and Spokane Valley City Councilman Gary Schimmels suggested hiring a facilitator to guide the meeting, and giving the facilitator a list of “deal-breaker” issues by Jan. 21.

Commissioner Todd Mielke suggested the summit when Commissioner Mark Richard expressed doubt an agreement could be achieved in a month.

“We’re not going to take food or water until we come to an agreement,” Commission Chairman Al French joked.

French said he hoped a quorum of all 10 city and town councils in the county would attend the summit. Otherwise, it would be difficult to achieve a quick and durable agreement, he said.

Verner didn’t want to comment on the idea until her staff briefs her this morning, spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

Although Verner’s goal is to reach final agreement on a new governance structure within 30 days, Feist said the mayor isn’t sure the city can wait that long to extend a contract for operation of the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

Despite a host of complicated details, the issue is simple: Spokane wants to retain ownership and control of the system while commissioners and officials of other cities want it to be run by a health district-style coalition.

Existing contracts give Spokane ownership of the Waste-to-Energy Plant even though everyone in the county helped pay for it. City officials fear the plant could become a “stranded asset” if a coalition decided not to use it.

Feist said Verner is “very committed to ensuring that the ratepayers’ interests are not at risk and are protected – and, by that, she means all of the ratepayers.”

Richard said it “wouldn’t be prudent” to abandon the electricity-generating trash burner just when its construction bonds are about to be paid off, but long-haul landfill disposal might be cheaper in the long run.

Already, a substantial portion of the system’s garbage is sent to a landfill.

Russ Menke, the city-employed director of the Solid Waste System, said he doubted landfill disposal would be cheaper overall, but expanding the waste plant’s capacity with a third boiler “doesn’t make sense.”

“Personally, I can’t envision the third boiler ever being built,” Menke said. “With the capital investment, I just don’t see it penciling out.”

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