The Politics of Compost: City Staff Pushes Composting Biosolids in Solid Waste Plan
On Tuesday November 16th, I sent an email letter to City Council members, as well as the heads of several local organizations, and to my friends and acquaintances, whom I know care about gardening and composting, concerning city staff’s November 8th recommendation that Council approve the WeCare Organic’s proposal to take over operations of the Ann Arbor composting program. AnnArbor. com’s Ryan Stanton, who was not a recipient of the original email, was forwarded a copy (I presume) and wrote about my concerns in two different pieces posted to the site. He did so, predictably enough, without speaking to me directly. In fact, AnnArbor.com went so far as to refuse to post my comment concerning his piece (you can read it here) for several days after I submitted it (tip o’ the keyboard to Peter Zetlin). AnnArbor.com followed up on Stanton’s “reporting” on November 21st with a full-blown editorial that was a ringing endorsement of outsourcing our compost operations. Editorialist Tony Dearing argued that this must be done to stem financial “losses.” Incredibly, AnnArbor.com’s editorial psychics predicted loses at the compost facility would be $3.5 million over the next five years.
They also predicted Michigan would go to Rose Bowl this year, and AnnArbor.com would be wildly profitable. Sometime. Soon.
It’s impossible to know whether the compost facility will continue to suffer financial loses over the next five years for the simple reason that Dearing’s assumptions were based on a scenario under which staff continues to be allowed to keep the compost program as an Enterprise Fund, continues to mismanage the facility, poorly market the product, and sell our compost at a loss to landscapers who turn around and sell it to their customers for a tidy profit. The newspaper’s editorial conclusions were also predicated on the assumption that Council will continue to do as they’re told and give no direction to the City Administrator. (This is actually the one assumption that has been born out over the course of the past few years.)
So how come the compost program is “losing money?” Because the compost program was, several years ago, at the urging of the very same city staff who haven’t managed it responsibly, moved into what is called an Enterprise Fund. These are funds that provide goods or services to the public for a fee that (in theory) makes the entity self-supporting. City staff went before City Council and assured Council and the public that our compost facility could be managed so that it would be financially self-sustaining. Just to be clear, Council could remove the compost program from the accounting category that is the Enterprise Fund, and our tax dollars would, then, fund the programs, just as they did before. Let’s not forget that Ann Arbor taxpayers pay $11 million dollars per year through a millage to fund solid waste services. Incredibly, it’s city staff who can’t manage to make do with $11 million dollars to run our recycling, garbage and composting programs.
This is the $11 million dollar question, and one which only Third Ward Council member Steve Kunselman touched upon, albeit obliquely, during the November 8th Council Work Session. One reason is that John Hieftje and Council have helped Recycle Ann Arbor rob Ann Arbor taxpayers blind. Recycle Ann Arbor is the company to which the operations of our recycling program were outsourced (under the auspices of a no bid contract) several years ago. Almost one-third of the $11 million dollars taxpayers fork over each year to the City for solid waste services, is given to/spent on Recycle Ann Arbor. For instance, Ann Arbor taxpayers buy the trucks Recycle Ann Arbor uses, pay to fuel the trucks for Recycle Ann Arbor, and pay to repair and maintain the trucks for Recycle Ann Arbor. The City of Ann Arbor even gives away finished compost to Recycle Ann Arbor free of charge. Recycle Ann Arbor then sells that compost to individuals. With the switch to single-stream recycling, Ann Arbor taxpayers purchased new trucks for Recycle Ann Arbor to replace the new trucks purchased for Recycle Ann Arbor just a few years ago.
Do you know what taxpayers get in return? The opportunity to pay a $3 fee to use our own Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), and bag our own leaves.
John Hieftje and Fifth Ward Council member Carsten Hohnke make out somewhat better than you and I. They get political endorsements from people at Recycle Ann Arbor who have benefitted financially for years from this insane contractual arrangement with the City (an example of outsourcing praised by AnnArbor.com in the November 21st editorial, by the way).
This political smooch comes from Hieftje’s campaign web site:
John Hieftje has the strongest environmental record of any Mayor in the Midwest. He’s championed the city’s Greenbelt, the clean energy initiative, commuter rail, bicycling and our terrific parks system. These programs set Ann Arbor apart. John’s leadership has set the standard for progressive mayors everywhere. —Mike Garfield, Environmental Activist (Michael Garfield is the Vice Chair of Recycle Ann Arbor’s Board of Directors)
The real question is not whether the compost facility can be run profitably. The real question is why a solid waste millage of $11 million dollars per year shouldn’t include supporting the compost program? In other words, why is it necessary for composting to be a self-sustaining program in order for Ann Arbor to provide the service to residents? I don’t believe services provided by city government, particularly solid waste services, should be expected to be self-sustaining, financially. Neither do I believe that the city staff who mistakenly assured Council and the public that the compost program could be financially self-sustaining should be let off the hook for their managerial failures and poor performance. These people have cost us money, not only in their salaries and generous benefits, but in their inability to competently tend to and expand the compost program—to do what they were given increasingly larger salaries year-after-year to do.
On November 16th, I wrote to a large group of people that I was concerned that this push by staff to outsource the operations of the compost facility is absolutely contrary to the best interests of both taxpayers and the compost program itself. I remain concerned, and plan to send out the following email on Monday November 29th.
I am still very concerned about the City of Ann Arbor’s composting program.
I phoned Mr. Michael Nicholson, Senior VP at WeCare Organics and had a lengthy conversation with Mr. Nicholson that I shared with the readers of my blog A2Politico, here (http://www.a2politico.com/?p=4953). Mr. Nicholson was frank, forthright and very concerned, as well. He assured me that WeCare has no plans to include sewage sludge (so-called biosolids) in the recipe for AnnArbor’s compost. However, on November 8th city staff told Council finished compost would be marketed under the “WeCare compost,” brand, a product that includes the incorporation of biosolds, according to WeCare’s web site (http://www.wecareorganics.com/products_compost.htm). WeCare may have no plans to include biosolids in the compost, but the City’s own Solid Waste Plan does suggest that composting our own waste water biosolids has been actively considered a goal by staff since 2002:
The City’s Solid Waste plan includes this among its various goals/objectives:
COMPOST-8: UTILITIES BIOSOLIDS
A. Strategy Summary and Customer Focus: Sludge from the City’s wastewater treatment plant (aka: biosolids) will be handled using environmentally responsible management approaches consistent with state and federal regulatory requirements.
B. Goal Statement: Support development of a biosolids management approach for sludge generated by the wastewater treatment plant that recycles the organic material back into the earth in a manner consistent with regulatory requirements and cost containment goals.
C. Key Objectives: During the five-year plan period, the following key objectives are achievable:
1. Provide support as needed to the City’s Utilities Department in their evaluation of biosolids management approaches to make sure that the analysis explores, to the fullest extent possible, the use of composting and other related processes to manage the waste water treatment plant sludge and return it to a productive role in the regional biomass system.
2. To the extent necessary, make the operational resources of the Solid Waste Department available to the City’s Utilities Department as they implement a biosolids management system for the City’s wastewater treatment plant sludge.
I’m also concerned because while the Solid Waste Plan does not include among its goals and objectives outsourcing operations, at a November 8th Council work session, city staff told Council and the public that outsourcing operations was planned years ago to “leverage our assets” at the compost facility. Over the past few years, Ann Arbor taxpayers have invested millions in equipment, land and capital improvements to the facility. However, when presenting those proposals to Council for the additional purchase of equipment and land, for instance, nothing was mentioned about the eventual outsourcing of operations.
We have been told that the compost facility does not have a state permit to process biosolids. This is correct. However, Mr. Nicholson (corroborated by the RFP) told me that WeCare would be expected to get a new facility permit in 2011 when the current permit expires, and to process biosolids would require little more than public hearings. In addition, WeCare has promised to include a no biosolids clause in its contract with the City. This is laudable. Council can, of course (and does) amend contracts, as they very recently amended the city’s ongoing contract with Recycle Ann Arbor. WeCare’s Mr. Nicholson told me quite emphatically that having a facility manager is key, in his company’s opinion, to running the facility responsibly.
I’m concerned because the compost facility/program has been allowed to founder without a dedicated manager for the past several years. Now, taxpayers and Council are told the facility simply can’t turn a profit, and its operations must be outsourced. We were also told by city staff that high fixed labor costs are partially to blame for the “unprofitability” of the compost facility. However, just a few months ago, Council brought forth a resolution to award a revised no bid contract to pay Recycle Ann Arbor more to collect our recycling. The result? As of October, taxpayers paid almost the same amount ($660,000) to have garbage collected by unionized workers, as we did to have our recycling collected by Recycle Ann Arbor. Why are labor costs at issue with respect to the compost facility, when they were not an issue when amending the no bid contract for Recycle Ann Arbor?
To the many who contacted Mayor and Council, thank you. Your emails persuaded them that the issue needed further discussion, slated for early December. Now, the question is whether our millions in investments in that facility will be used by WeCare to their company’s benefit, or managed responsibly our own city staff, to the benefit of those whose money funded the investments in land, capital improvements and equipment.
I just can’t conclude that the best answer to unmet goals is raising the pay of staff who failed to meet the goals, then outsourcing and selling taxpayer assets. Unmet goals should result in frank and honest evaluation of staff. Perhaps, such frank discussions will even lead to the obvious conclusion that, like the recycling program, the compost facility/program needs a dedicated manager committed to the ongoing success of the program. It may even lead to another obvious solution. At the insistence of staff (as seen in the Solid Waste Plan) composting was made a profit center by Mayor and Council. A simple alternative to outsourcing would be for for Mayor and Council to direct the City Administrator to return the compost program to the status it once held as a service provided by a perpetual millage (that raises $10-$11 million per year), and to update the City’s Solid Waste Plan with an eye toward improved staff accountability.
Individuals, I hope, will forward this email to other concerned Ann Arborites, continue to call and email Council (their addresses appear in the :cc line of this email) to urge them to reject the staff’s recommendation to outsource our composting program to WeCare (based in New York).
Patricia Lesko, Ann Arbor resident
Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=5029