County Trash Hauler Pushed To Brink

by Mark Scaramella, January 18, 2017

Willits Weekly reporter Mike A'Dair dug up some useful background concerning the ongoing dispute between County trash hauler Jerry Ward of Solid Waste of Willits (SWOW) and the County last week.

Newly appointed County trash czar Louise Moore told A'Dair that her demand that Ward pay $25,000 for a performance bond "would protect the County and ultimately Ward's solid waste customers. With the performance bonds in place if SWOW goes under then we have $250,000 that the county can use to help us find a resolution to the problem," Morris said, not explaining how $250k could be used in the absence of Ward’s county-wide operation and facilities, even for a short time.

According to A'Dair's backgrounder, Ward first applied for a rate increase in late 2015 while former Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority General Manager Mike Sweeney was still the County's trash czar. Sweeney hasn't liked Ward since back in the early 2000s when the County ultimately chose Ward's recycling facility in Willits over Sweeney's grandiose North-Ukiah proposal which was eventually blocked by a neighborhood group’s environmental lawsuit.

In early 2016 the Board of Supervisors created a special ad hoc committee composed of Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg and then-Third District Supervisor Tom Woodhouse to deal with Ward's proposed rate increase. They met with Ward several times but "had difficulty agreeing on the numbers in SWOW's financial books."

A'Dair points out that the franchise agreement that the Sweeney-written franchise agreement that Ward has with the County requires an independent audit to be paid for by the company "when a [financial] disagreement arises."

In May of 2016, five months after Ward's initial application, Sweeney proposed some concessions to Ward "that did not include the large rate increase Ward was seeking but which both Sweeney and the Hamburg-Woodhouse ad hoc committee maintained would provide Ward with $108,000 worth of increased revenue. Ward rejected the concessions stating they would not be enough to turn the company around."

The $108,000 was estimated by Sweeney, not Ward.

As the slow-motion train wreck proceeded down the tracks, Sweeney proposed that Ward pay for the audit required by the franchise agreement at an estimated cost of $25-$30,000. Ward refused.

More months went by. Supervisor Woodhouse stopped attending board meetings in late August due to his now well-known mental health problems. Sweeney retired in late September. Hamburg said nothing and did nothing about the issue over the ensuing months, nor did he report on status of the ad hoc committee which did not meet again — "resulting in a six month stalemate between Ward, the Solid Waste Management Authority and the County," A'Dair reported.

Nothing happened until Ward finally appeared before the Board of Supervisors on December 20 in a last-ditch attempt to get the board to pay attention to the problem. At that time Ward said that Sweeney's $108,000 estimate for the “concessions” was exaggerated, but even so it was far short of the $275k he said he needed to stay out of bankruptcy in 2017. "I don't have the money to pay for an audit," Ward told the Supes in December. "I cannot make payroll next week (the last week of December)."

Ward has asked for a 4% increase in collection fees in Anderson Valley and 9% increase on the South Coast including Point Arena and Gualala. He also wants to close three recycling buyback centers — in Westport, Boonville and Gualala — because the recycling market has fallen way off.

In other words, most of the responsibility for the long delay in dealing with the problem can be attributed directly to Supervisor Hamburg who irresponsibly did nothing for months at a time while the problem went unaddressed, and Ward’s losses continued to mount until Ward himself made his appearance at the Board of Supervisors meeting in December to try to get some attention paid to the problem.

This year in the wake of Ward's December appearance, the Board belatedly re-activated the dormant ad hoc committee, appointing Supervisor John McCowen to replace Woodhouse. The Hamburg-McCowen "committee" has reported met with Ward a couple of times but has made no progress so far other than demanding the performance bond and a promise from Ward that he not sue the County for any financial damages the County may inflict on his business.

According to a letter in this week’s Independent Coast Observer concerning the ongoing dispute and the status of Ward's company (reprinted below), letter writer Jennifer Washick of Point Arena said that Ward's 80 dedicated employees worked without pay over the holidays.

We've been keeping a close eye on Board meetings and Supervisors reports and the only subjects that Supervisor Hamburg has spoken about in his "Supervisors Reports" have been the attempts of people other than himself to get better broadband service in the County and Mendo's tenuous connection to a Sonoma County Clean Power program which Mendo is riding the coat-tails of.

Other than that, Hamburg has done nothing for the Fifth District or the County besides draw his nice salary and benefits, appear at a few meetings with nothing to say, denounce the Sheriff’s sorely needed Mental Health Initiative without substantive reason ultimately leading to its narrow defeat, and personally intervene with County officials to have his mentally ill son fast-tracked through the Mental Health system to save Hamburg a few bucks.

* * *

In his Supervisors report, newly seated Board Chair John McCowen updated his colleagues on the status of the stalled negotiations with Solid Waste of Willits last Tuesday, negotiations which have gone unresolved for about a year now while Mendo carps about how SWOW owner Jerry Ward calculates his profit margin and issues Sweeney-inspired ultimatums designed to punish a good and reliable service provider.

McCowen said he and fellow Solid Waste ad hoc committee member Dan Hamburg had met with SWOW again, and again made no progress except to set another meeting date where they will attempt to figure out how to calculate Ward’s profit margin and how much, if any, new money he should get.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it deserves repeating: Mendo’s hard-ball approach to contract negotiations with Ward and his trash hauling operation is in stark contrast to the lob-ball approach taken to Ortner Management Group which was allowed to drag on for over three years with ridiculous and well-documented excess profits and minimal service delivery before something was done — and then only when the Sheriff and all the inland medicos demanded a change.

Mccowen: “It remains to be seen whether we will have a meeting of the minds. But the goal is to come back to the Board at the January 24 meeting with recommendations. We are hopeful that we will be able to do that.”

Mccowen smiled cautiously at his colleagues Dan Gjerde and Carre Brown in hopes that they wouldn’t ask any pesky questions like, “Why is this taking so long?” or, “Why do we need an ad hoc committee? Isn’t our overpaid trash czar supposed to handle stuff like this?”

It worked. Gjerde and Brown didn’t say a word.

* * *

DON’T DUMP WARD

Editor:

We are in imminent danger of losing our refuse company, Solid Waste of Willits.

I was shocked to read about the dispute that Mr. Ward is having with the County. I thought immediately on my fixed budget that I can afford another $5 a month. After speaking to owner Jerry Ward he said it would only be one or two dollars a month. Who would say no to this?

No one else bid on his contract, I learned, and Anita recommended we all contact Dan Hamburg and Jerry agreed. We are so grateful we have these workers! They are out there on holidays in the freezing rain and snow and in the dark. These workers are not taking vacations, not buying fancy cars and are getting by like everyone else.

Sometimes their trucks even break down and they still make it!

This problem started on December 15, 2015 and now has become very bad. We need to all support them immediately! We already have increased trash from tourists and even locals. This would be a nightmare. Please tell everyone to call and write an email now to Supervisor Hamburg at 707-463-4441 and email vote@pacific.net.

Thank you to everyone who picks up all the trash like me! I see you!

In some newspapers it says that the problem is with Ward’s Willits company. I don't care: it's about to be our very serious problem. The 80 workers at Solid Waste of Willits — including a percentage in Gualala — went without pay for the holidays! It is so hard to get workers here! We are so fortunate to have them! We support Solid Waste of Willits!

Love this Coast, not losing it!

Jennifer Washick, Point Arena

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