Ramsey and Washington counties have succeeded in whittling back the purchase price of a garbage recycling plant in Newport, and seem ready to buy it despite misgivings about the technology.
A board consisting of commissioners from both counties agreed almost unanimously Thursday to recommend spending $24.4 million to buy the plant, if a series of conditions is met by December.
That’s less than the $26.4 million, plus the current owner’s capital expenses, that an arbitrator had ruled was fair. Commissioners complained that the price seemed high for a facility with no other obvious buyer, and had pushed back the purchase to allow time for further talks.
The plant processes garbage from the two counties and from some outside customers to the point where it can be burned elsewhere to produce electricity.
The lone dissenting commissioner, Gary Kriesel of Washington County, likened the purchase to “buying a Blockbuster store,” in the sense that better technologies should eventually come along to replace it.
A group called Neighbors Against the Burner turned up with protest signs, and one member stood near the commissioners for much of the meeting in a gas mask, holding up a succession of written messages complaining of pollution and of a refusal to allow public testimony at Thursday’s session in St. Paul.
Most members of the Resource Recovery Project Board argued, however, that for the moment, a purchase is the way to go.
“I, too, would like to have the tools to not just ‘grind and burn,’ ” said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. “But the reason I changed my mind, from where I started a year and a half ago, is that I believe we cannot reach that goal without gaining control of the waste, so we can say ‘This is what we do, we compost, we [move to other options].’ Once we buy the plant we can choose to do different things with that.”
Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham said she had misgivings: “None of us want to be in the garbage processing business.”
But once the current owner, Resource Recovery Technologies, signaled a desire to sell, she said, the risks became too serious. They included, she said, waste ending up in landfills, and a loss of scores of jobs. Bigham represents the city of Newport.
One advantage offered by public ownership, commissioners repeated Thursday, is the ability legally to direct waste to the Newport plant instead of allowing a portion to be landfilled out of state. That cannot be done on behalf of a private party. Commissioners also aim to phase out subsidies now needed to induce haulers to use the plant.
Ramsey County, the larger of the two counties, would be responsible for more of the purchase price than Washington: nearly $18 million vs. Washington’s $6.6 million. Washington hopes to avoid debt financing by drawing from a solid waste reserve, commissioners were told, while Ramsey would be expected to borrow by issuing bonds.
The deal is expected to be submitted to both boards for ratification on Sept. 22.
The remaining sticking points have to do with issues such as long-term union contracts. Legally, the counties can’t subscribe to those in the way that the private owner, Resource Recovery Technologies, has done.