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The Politics of Compost: City Staff Pushes Composting Biosolids in Solid Waste Plan

CompostOn 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.

Why?

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.

Friends,

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).

Sincerely,

Patricia Lesko, Ann Arbor resident

 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=5029

10 Comments for “The Politics of Compost: City Staff Pushes Composting Biosolids in Solid Waste Plan”

  1. COME TO THE DEC. 6 COUNCIL MEETING AT 7PM AND PROTEST THE CITY’S DECISION TO OUTSOURCE THE ANN ARBOR COMPOSTING FACILITY AND AWARD CONTRACT TO A COMPANY THAT USES SEWER SLUDGE IN ITS COMPOST

    The City of Ann Arbor has plans in place to outsource the city’s compost facility. This decision was made without public hearings or input from Ann Arbor residents.
    . Why would the city want to hire someone else to run the compost center?
    The facility has a dedicated staff with an excellent record of producing top quality compost and mulch.
    But the city claims the center is a “financial burden” due to rising expenses and low revenues and wants to get rid of that burden. by outsourcing the facility to We Care Organics,
    A close look will show that those high expenses and low revenues are a result of the city mismanaging the facility by making bad financial and marketing decisions.

    City council or city staff has not addressed questions from concerned residents about these decisions.
    After hearing about the many questions and concerns about outsourcing, We Care’s VP Nicholson said, “The key to that site is a project manager. If you do something like this you should hold public meetings. You have to get the public on board.”

    City Council must put a hold on the decision to outsource the facility. Hold public hearings and create a task force to come up with a plan to keep the compost facility. Responsible oversight with on site management and creative marketing will enable the compost facility to pay for itself.

    In 2009 the facility ran at a loss of $568,000. (One of the expenses is $ 228.000 for “fleet maintenance”) 2010 projected loss: $681.000

    2009 compost expenses: $ 893.000
    2009 revenues: for compost and mulch $ 94.000

    2010 compost expenses $ 928,000
    2010 projected revenues $110.000

    One reason the facility is running at a loss is the absurdly low prices of mulch and compost
    set by the city
    $10- $12 cu.yd mulch
    $2.75- $ 7 cu.yd compost (the more you buy, the lower the price)

    If the prices were doubled, the 2009 revenue would be $188.000, if tripled it would be $282,000.
    That would be more in line with the price the Recycle Center charges.

    The Recycle Center gets compost and mulch from the city and resells it at $15 cu yd for mulch and $18 for compost. Why does the city allow the Recycle Center to set its own prices while practically giving away compost and mulch at the compost center? What does Recycle pay to buy the compost?

    What a great deal for out of city and local landscapers! They bought so many truckloads of compost that the facility actually ran out of compost for residents.
    You or your group or club or organization may have had this unpleasant and completely unnecessary experience.

    To save money, the city has eliminated the fall leaf pick-up and Xmas tree pick-up. In my OWS neighborhood, 50% or more front lawns and setbacks. are covered with leaves. How much money is the city really saving? There will be fewer leaves to go to the compost center.
    The city trucks are still going to have to pick up any leaves in the streets during street cleaning.

    The City wants to award the contract to We Care Organics, an enormous New York company that uses sewage sludge in their compost and “earth blends”.

    We Care’s website states: “our compost and earth blends are comprised of nutrient-rich wastewater “biosolids “ (sewage sludge) and yard trimmings

    Sewage sludge is the residue left after the wastewater treatment process
    The city and We Care have promised that they will “NEVER” use sludge, Then why is the city so eager to give the contract to We Care Organics? Spurt Industries, a Michigan company that uses only yard waste in its compost, submitted a lower proposal. You may get the answer by reading the Ann Arbor Solid Waste Plan of 2002, which is the city plan to introduce sewage sludge into the facility’s compost.
    The city’s Fleet and Services manager Matt Kuhlanek said the decision to choose We Care “wasn’t as much on the financial side of things but rather that the city felt more comfortable going with the larger, more established company.”

    SlugeNew’s editor Laura Orlando says:
    ” Think of We Care as a hazardous laundering operation,”

    Websites with good information about this hazardous waste: Sludge News and Source Watch

    COME TO THE DEC. 6 COUNCIL MEETING AT 7PM AND PROTEST THE CITY’S DECISION TO OUTSOURCE THE ANN ARBOR COMPOSTING FACILITY AND AWARD CONTRACT TO A COMPANY THAT USES SEWER SLUDGE IN ITS COMPOST

    The City of Ann Arbor has plans in place to outsource the city’s compost facility. This decision was made without public hearings or input from Ann Arbor residents.
    . Why would the city want to hire someone else to run the compost center?
    The facility has a dedicated staff with an excellent record of producing top quality compost and mulch.
    But the city claims the center is a “financial burden” due to rising expenses and low revenues and wants to get rid of that burden. by outsourcing the facility to We Care Organics,
    A close look will show that those high expenses and low revenues are a result of the city mismanaging the facility by making bad financial and marketing decisions.

    City council or city staff has not addressed questions from concerned residents about these decisions.
    After hearing about the many questions and concerns about outsourcing, We Care’s VP Nicholson said, “The key to that site is a project manager. If you do something like this you should hold public meetings. You have to get the public on board.”

    City Council must put a hold on the decision to outsource the facility. Hold public hearings and create a task force to come up with a plan to keep the compost facility. Responsible oversight with on site management and creative marketing will enable the compost facility to pay for itself.

    In 2009 the facility ran at a loss of $568,000. (One of the expenses is $ 228.000 for “fleet maintenance”) 2010 projected loss: $681.000

    2009 compost expenses: $ 893.000
    2009 revenues: for compost and mulch $ 94.000

    2010 compost expenses $ 928,000
    2010 projected revenues $110.000

    One reason the facility is running at a loss is the absurdly low prices of mulch and compost
    set by the city
    $10- $12 cu.yd mulch
    $2.75- $ 7 cu.yd compost (the more you buy, the lower the price)

    If the prices were doubled, the 2009 revenue would be $188.000, if tripled it would be $282,000.
    That would be more in line with the price the Recycle Center charges.

    The Recycle Center gets compost and mulch from the city and resells it at $15 cu yd for mulch and $18 for compost. Why does the city allow the Recycle Center to set its own prices while practically giving away compost and mulch at the compost center? What does Recycle pay to buy the compost?

    What a great deal for out of city and local landscapers! They bought so many truckloads of compost that the facility actually ran out of compost for residents.
    You or your group or club or organization may have had this unpleasant and completely unnecessary experience.

    To save money, the city has eliminated the fall leaf pick-up and Xmas tree pick-up. In my OWS neighborhood, 50% or more front lawns and setbacks. are covered with leaves. How much money is the city really saving? There will be fewer leaves to go to the compost center.
    The city trucks are still going to have to pick up any leaves in the streets during street cleaning.

    The City wants to award the contract to We Care Organics, an enormous New York company that uses sewage sludge in their compost and “earth blends”.

    We Care’s website states: “our compost and earth blends are comprised of nutrient-rich wastewater “biosolids “ (sewage sludge) and yard trimmings

    Sewage sludge is the residue left after the wastewater treatment process
    The city and We Care have promised that they will “NEVER” use sludge, Then why is the city so eager to give the contract to We Care Organics? Spurt Industries, a Michigan company that uses only yard waste in its compost, submitted a lower proposal. You may get the answer by reading the Ann Arbor Solid Waste Plan of 2002, which is the city plan to introduce sewage sludge into the facility’s compost.
    The city’s Fleet and Services manager Matt Kuhlanek said the decision to choose We Care “wasn’t as much on the financial side of things but rather that the city felt more comfortable going with the larger, more established company.”

    SlugeNew’s editor Laura Orlando says:
    ” Think of We Care as a hazardous laundering operation,”

    Websites with good information about this hazardous waste: Sludge News and Source Watch

    COME TO THE DEC. 6 COUNCIL MEETING AT 7PM AND PROTEST THE CITY’S DECISION TO OUTSOURCE THE ANN ARBOR COMPOSTING FACILITY AND AWARD CONTRACT TO A COMPANY THAT USES SEWER SLUDGE IN ITS COMPOST

    The City of Ann Arbor has plans in place to outsource the city’s compost facility. This decision was made without public hearings or input from Ann Arbor residents.
    . Why would the city want to hire someone else to run the compost center?
    The facility has a dedicated staff with an excellent record of producing top quality compost and mulch.
    But the city claims the center is a “financial burden” due to rising expenses and low revenues and wants to get rid of that burden. by outsourcing the facility to We Care Organics,
    A close look will show that those high expenses and low revenues are a result of the city mismanaging the facility by making bad financial and marketing decisions.

    City council or city staff has not addressed questions from concerned residents about these decisions.
    After hearing about the many questions and concerns about outsourcing, We Care’s VP Nicholson said, “The key to that site is a project manager. If you do something like this you should hold public meetings. You have to get the public on board.”

    City Council must put a hold on the decision to outsource the facility. Hold public hearings and create a task force to come up with a plan to keep the compost facility. Responsible oversight with on site management and creative marketing will enable the compost facility to pay for itself.

    In 2009 the facility ran at a loss of $568,000. (One of the expenses is $ 228.000 for “fleet maintenance”) 2010 projected loss: $681.000

    2009 compost expenses: $ 893.000
    2009 revenues: for compost and mulch $ 94.000

    2010 compost expenses $ 928,000
    2010 projected revenues $110.000

    One reason the facility is running at a loss is the absurdly low prices of mulch and compost
    set by the city
    $10- $12 cu.yd mulch
    $2.75- $ 7 cu.yd compost (the more you buy, the lower the price)

    If the prices were doubled, the 2009 revenue would be $188.000, if tripled it would be $282,000.
    That would be more in line with the price the Recycle Center charges.

    The Recycle Center gets compost and mulch from the city and resells it at $15 cu yd for mulch and $18 for compost. Why does the city allow the Recycle Center to set its own prices while practically giving away compost and mulch at the compost center? What does Recycle pay to buy the compost?

    What a great deal for out of city and local landscapers! They bought so many truckloads of compost that the facility actually ran out of compost for residents.
    You or your group or club or organization may have had this unpleasant and completely unnecessary experience.

    To save money, the city has eliminated the fall leaf pick-up and Xmas tree pick-up. In my OWS neighborhood, 50% or more front lawns and setbacks. are covered with leaves. How much money is the city really saving? There will be fewer leaves to go to the compost center.
    The city trucks are still going to have to pick up any leaves in the streets during street cleaning.

    The City wants to award the contract to We Care Organics, an enormous New York company that uses sewage sludge in their compost and “earth blends”.

    We Care’s website states: “our compost and earth blends are comprised of nutrient-rich wastewater “biosolids “ (sewage sludge) and yard trimmings

    Sewage sludge is the residue left after the wastewater treatment process
    The city and We Care have promised that they will “NEVER” use sludge, Then why is the city so eager to give the contract to We Care Organics? Spurt Industries, a Michigan company that uses only yard waste in its compost, submitted a lower proposal. You may get the answer by reading the Ann Arbor Solid Waste Plan of 2002, which is the city plan to introduce sewage sludge into the facility’s compost.
    The city’s Fleet and Services manager Matt Kuhlanek said the decision to choose We Care “wasn’t as much on the financial side of things but rather that the city felt more comfortable going with the larger, more established company.”

    SlugeNew’s editor Laura Orlando says:
    ” Think of We Care as a hazardous laundering operation,”

    Websites with good information about this hazardous waste: Sludge News and Source Watch

  2. If the compost program can be moved from the Enterprise Fund it should be moved.

  3. Golly Gee is exactly how Ronald Regan got ketchup classified as a vegetable in school lunch programs. The mayor is a liar an idiot or both. Where would we get sludge? The worst part is that Ryan Stanton is a bona fide fool who didn’t question the obvious lie about where WeCare might get sludge to put in the compost.

  4. Golly-Gee defense!! This is brilliant, Wendy. If there was ever a man who was intellectually challenged, it is John Hieftje. So, he resorts to the Golly-Gee defense. It’s absolutely no surprise that WeCare Organics was chosen by city staff. The idea of mixing in sewage sludge with the compost is, indeed, an idea that has been batted around for several years according to a friend in the Solid Waste Department. The WeCare people are either completely on board with the idea that down the road sewage sludge will be added to the compost or this Nicholson fellow is completely in the dark. Why on earth do people think staff recommended a company experienced at incorporating sewage sludge to compost they sell under the trademark WeCare Organics. Good God! Why do people think the majority of companies that responded to the RFP have experience in handling ‘biosolids’? The only people who had no idea what the hell was going on were the Council members, the people who are supposed to be elected to keep the train on the track. Staff is determined to drive the city right off the rails. Excellent job on this one!

  5. So I feel compelled to ask after reading the Solid Waste Plan: why wasn’t the plan updated?!? Our city is working from a rickety, old, outdated Solid Waste Plan? Why? Many of the plan’s stated goals were excellent (higher recycling collections rates for business, for instance) but obviously the plan flopped through lack of follow through. So instead of dealing with the flop, we outsource? Is it any wonder staff think they can get away with this kind of monkey business?

  6. @4 The “Golly Gee Defense” is one way to describe his penchant for pathological fibbing. Of course, Ryan Stanton is just as much to blame for not paying attention at the November 8th Work Session (Stanton can be seen with his earbuds in on the video of the meeting). Read the Solid Waste Plan, and what we have is a failure to communicate….honestly, on the part of John Hieftje and Sue McCormick, the city staffer who told Council members that the outsourcing idea was as old as the hills. Of course, at that same meeting we have Council member Marcia Higgins claiming that the new leaf collection system was a “pilot program.” McCormick corrected her bluntly, and Higgins was shocked, truly, but not shocked enough to keep up with what was a very welcome line of frank questioning.

  7. It seems that the Mayor is again using the “Golly-Gee” defense when confronted with legitimate questions.

    From AnnArbor.com
    Mayor John Hieftje said “nobody’s ever said a word” about sewage sludge.

    “I don’t even know where they would get sewage sludge around here,” he said. “I think it’s kind of funny actually. We’re talking about a company performing to the standard we would set.”

    So, the Mayor would have us believe that Ann Arbor doesn’t produce sewage sludge?

    While WeCare may only be allowed to process yard and food waste in Ann Arbor what prevents them from adding biosolids to the finished product? In their proposal to the City under “Summary of Benefits and Risks” it is written that WeCare Compost is “combined or blended with yard trimmings…” What difference does it make if it is local or imported crap? It’s still crap.

  8. good job

  9. @1 Thanks, Peter. I checked back for several days after I posted my comment to see if it would be put up, then just decided to post the comment here.

  10. Thank you for all the information. AA.com has published your reply in the comment section of “‘Sewage sludge’ rumors surrounding Ann Arbor compost privatization are untrue, officials say.”

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