Commissioners approve waste agreement

Following at times harsh debate and fears of leaving Washington County open to expensive legal actions, the County Board of Commissioners Tuesday agreed by the smallest of margins to approve a three-year waste processing agreement with Resource Recovery Technologies.

Tuesday’s 3-to-2 vote approving the agreement came after commissioners delayed action on the contract for a week to get more information on the consequences the county could face if it rejected the pact.

Commissioners Dennis Hegberg Gary Kriesel and Lisa Weik voted to approve the RRT agreement. Commissioners Bill Pulkrabek and Autumn Lehrke opposed the pact. Pulkrabek said he wanted the county to return to the “free market” for refuse disposal. Lehrke said she wants RRT to open its books to the county for “transparency.”

County health officials warned that if commissioners rejected the agreement consequences to the county include losing more than $850,000 in state funds; having to revise and resubmit its master plan to the MPCA; closure of RRT’s Newport facility and Xcel plants in Red Wing and Mankato; loss of more than 100 union jobs and more than $30 million in annual revenue and $340,000 in property and income taxes.

“This is an environmental protection issue. We don’t want groundwater contamination,” said Lowell Johnson, director of the county’s Department of Public Health and Environment.

DPHE Senior Program Manager Judy Hunter reminded commissioners that the RRT facility is overseen by a joint program board comprised of officials from Ramsey and Washington counties. She said that board approved the RRT agreement in August.

“We also have to consider that there are policy plans that guide this,” she said, noting that the board adopted a solid waste master plan in March.

Hunter said state funds that would be jeopardized by the board rejecting the agreement include a 50 percent reduction in recycling grants to cities and townships; $580,000 lost in Environmental Center funding, and $74,000 lost for school and other education activities and program support.

Hunter also warned that the county could face legal action from the MPCA if commissioners failed to approve the agreement.

“They are looking to enforce this plan,” she said.

A letter from an MPCA official warned of actions the agency could take if the board rejected the RRT agreement.

“If a county is not making progress, or begins to regress away from the established objectives, the MPCA may need to reconsider the approval status of that plan,” wrote David Benke, director of the MPCA resource management and assistance division.

Benke reminded commissioners that the planning process was over and counties were expected to implement their waste plans.

“The expectation is that both the state and counties will take the necessary actions to implement the goals and objectives of the Master Plans and the Metropolitan Solid Waste Policy Plan,” he writes.

In a letter to Kriesel, RRT COO Chris Gondeck writes that if the county board fails to ratify the agreement, the consequences would be swift.

“Should Washington County decide not to ratify the new contract and withdraw its support of waste processing, the Newport facility and Xcel’s power plants in Mankato and Red Wing would close,” Gondeck writes.

Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty told commissioners that the city council supports the RRT agreement. “We’re in support of the agreement. I want to fight for those jobs,” he said. “I support ratification of the agreement and hope we adopt it today.”

“If we don’t approve the contract, it’s going to affect how we handle waste,” Kriesel said. “You can take it to the bank that there would be legal action if we did not approve this.”

“We can’t put the county at legal risk,” Weik added.

The board’s legal counsel, George Kuprian, also warned that the county could face actions by several groups.

“We’re in a different position than any other counties,” he said. “We already have a plan in place. The state could take action. Ramsey County could take action. I don’t want to give them any hints.”

But Pulkrabek and Lehrke both said that any agreement that provides public funds to a private company should let county officials see the company’s books.

“I have yet to find one person who wants us to approve this without them showing their books,” Lehrke said. “I think the big thing for the public is transparency.”

Pulkrabek added that if a company gets county funds, the county “should see the books.”

Pulkrabek also said he opposed the agreement because of the 37.5 percent tax charged residents to have their trash collected.

“The plan would be to put $2.2 million back in the taxpayers’ pockets,” he said. “The plan would be to let the free market work. If you’re voting for this, you’re keeping a 37.5 percent tax on people’s garbage bill.”

In other action, the board meeting as the Regional Rail Authority, voted to withdraw the county from the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission and instead focus railroad development efforts on freight hauling.

“It’s on life support now and it’s time to pull the plug,” Kriesel said. “I don’t see belonging to something where there’s no appetite for it at the state and federal level. Washington County is fly-over country when it comes to high-speed rail.”

But Hegberg cautioned that finding ways to get people from the Twin Cities to Chicago other than by air will become a priority at some future date.

“The issue is not going to go away. It’s just going to fester,” he said.

Kriesel said he would consider having the county rejoin the High Speed Rail Commission if interest grows at the state and federal level.

“I would be willing to rejoin something if there was a national need,” he said.