Commissioners approved a controversial garbage contract in Washington County last week, but not before an argument over warnings that plants would close and jobs would disappear without a yes vote.

The decision whether to renew a contract with Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) -- a Newport processor that converts garbage into fuel for two Xcel Energy plants -- hung on a 37.5 percent subsidy the county will pay over three years.

"I want to fight for the jobs that are there, keep those jobs," said Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty of the 100 union jobs. "We can't afford to have that facility vacant."

The debate among the five county commissioners involved environmental protections, state laws, tax burdens, garbage haulers and market economies. It also edged into a personal exchange between commissioners Bill Pulkrabek and Lisa Weik.

The $2.3 million "processing payment" the county will pay each year under the contract represents the cost of hauling to the Newport plant vs. cheaper disposal at out-of-state landfills. Haulers at the Newport plant are paid a $28 per ton rebate.

State law mandates counties to provide for processing rather than open dumps that could threaten groundwater. "It's the price we pay to divert waste out of landfills," said Commissioner Gary Kriesel.

But Pulkrabek and Autumn Lehrke, the two commissioners who voted no, said they objected to another public subsidy of RRT and wondered when it would end. They also asked why RRT, a private corporation, wouldn't open its finances for county inspection.

Chris Gondeck, the company's CEO, said that if the county withdrew its support of waste processing, the Newport plant would close and $340,000 in property and income taxes would be lost. Xcel power plants in Mankato and Red Wing that burn the processed garbage also would close, he said.

"It's frustrating to me that RRT would rather close this plant than show their books," Lehrke said. "What's so bad in there that we can't see it?"

Gondeck said RRT had reduced the subsidy by half in six years through new technology and other cost-saving efforts. "It's disappointing that after we've accomplished so much to hear, 'What are you hiding?' " he said later. "Just because we're not showing the books doesn't mean there's anything going on there. There's no reason for suspicion."

Pulkrabek, who is campaigning for re-election this fall, said the state mandate for garbage processing is a scare tactic. Washington County was being pushed into managing the financial well-being of garbage hauling companies, he said.

"The plan would be to vote no [to the contract] and put $2.2 million back in taxpayers' pockets and let the free market work," Pulkrabek said. "If you're voting for this, you're voting to put a 37 1/2 percent tax on people's garbage bills."

But Weik, Kriesel and board Chair Dennis Hegberg said it was dangerous to pull out of the RRT contract without fully knowing the consequences. RRT has worked hard to compete with landfills, Hegberg said, and Weik said a vote to reject the contract would put the county in violation of state law.

Kriesel said the garbage contract -- a joint agreement with Ramsey County -- was not an entitlement but a thoughtful approach to a serious issue. Moving in another direction might take the county three years -- the length of the RRT contract -- to map out, he said.

Voting down the contract "isn't going to hurt the big guys. They own the landfills. It's the little guys," Kriesel said.

Forty-five garbage companies, many of them owned by families, serve cities and townships in Washington County.

Weik, also campaigning for re-election, accused Pulkrabek of being "obstructionist" and putting forth "theatrical" arguments in an election year. Pulkrabek accused her of a "political cheap shot" and said she had reneged on promises to cut taxes, which she denied.

"If you've got something to say, just say it," said Pulkrabek, reacting to Weik's veiled references to his legal troubles involving a fight with a Woodbury woman last year.

The back-and-forth exchange continued after the 3-2 vote was taken. "I do think emotional outbursts are disconcerting and unprofessional," said Weik, telling Hegberg she felt personally attacked.

"Both of you personally attacked each other," said Hegberg, who finally cut them off.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles