The Deal’s Off

by Mark Scaramella, July 8, 2010

In the beginning, the citizens of vast Mendocino County simply hauled their garbage to a designated site upwind of population centers and heaved it over the side, everything from animal carcasses to car batteries to the occasional corpse. Long after the rest of America had brought order and sanitation to trash disposal, Mendocino County, forever behind the national curve in everything except marijuana cultivation, continued to toss trash out its collective back doors.

Here in Boonville, as late as 1980, trash was simply heaved over a convenient embankment about a mile west of town off Mountain View Road where the transfer station is now located.

Boonville's dump burned for years during the dry months. The over-the-side approach to Anderson Valley's trash disposal came to an end, or at least its end was hastened, when an elderly woman fell into Mountain View's Stygian pits of Boonville as she attempted to off-load her accumulated trash. She would die of her burns. The victim's elderly sister, attempting a rescue of her downed sibling at the un-attended site, was badly injured.

The City of Fort Bragg took a tidier approach to trash disposal. Fort Bragg built what locals called a “shit chute” on the ocean bluffs west of the mill where citizens could whisk their garbage out of sight for deposit just beyond the surf line in the blue Pacific. Ever since fragments of ocean-buffed colored glass have washed ashore at Glass Beach, a latter-day tourist draw.

* * *

It only took the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors a surprisingly small part of their June 22 meeting to give all of the County's garbage for the next 15 years to Solid Waste of Willits, a private business owned by an enterprising fellow named Jerry Ward. Ward's SWOW, pronounced “So-Wow,” got the gift that keeps on giving at the June 22nd Board meeting of the Supervisors, although a few people tardily wondered about the done deal.

The completed contract was brought to the Board for ratification that day by Mendo's newly re-empowered Garbage Czar, Mike Sweeney, who took over the whole garbage magilla last year when the Supervisors closed down the Transportation Department's Solid Waste Division and added it to Sweeney's recycling and hazmat empire.

Supervisors Colfax and Smith said privatizing the County's six remaining transfer stations was a bad idea, although the Board perfunctorily voted 3-2 to approve it, meaning Mr. Ward’s Willits-based company will haul every bit of garbage in Mendocino County for the next decade-and-a-half at, it must be said, rates dependent on, among other unknowns, the price of fuel and the value of recyclables.

The complaints about the contract came from Joe Louis Wildman, Dan Hamburg, Colfax and Smith; the three Supervisors who voted to approve the contract – Carre Brown, John McCowen and John Pinches – weren’t swayed in the slightest.

Wildman, a professional Democrat whose national government has out done Bush in general private damage to the country by private bankers, private military contractors, private energy companies all backed by public money, called privatization “a failure of government.”

Hamburg said the ad-hoc committee of Pinches and McCowen that finalized the wording of the deal should have had a coastal Supervisor in on it, meaning either 5th District Supervisor Colfax or 4th District Supervisor Smith, neither of them known for their lucidity. Hamburg, who looks like a shoo-in to succeed Colfax as 5th District Supervisor, also said that privatization, as social policy, is undesirable.

Supervisor Smith thought the County should have at least obtained some kind of “contract extension fee” for giving all those years of garbage to So-Wow.

So-Wow already operates north county garbage transfer stations and hauls most of the garbage from the rest of the County’s transfer stations to their processing facility in Willits, thence outtahere to Potrero Hills in Solano County.

Proponents of trash privatization described County-run transfer stations as “losers” because they’ve cost the county between $250k and $750k in annual subsidies out of the County's disappearing general fund.

But even if you agree that So-Wow’s contract will save the local taxpayers $250k to $750k per year, the speed of the final contract, given Mendo’s historically sludgelike processing, was unusual.

The reason for the haste became obvious toward the end of the meeting when CEO Carmel Angelo, responding to a question from SEIU representative Jackie Carvallo, assured the Board that the people manning the County’s six transfer stations – who had already been given layoff notices – would be guaranteed comparable positions with So-Wow.

The transfer station attendants, including Boonville's highly regarded Biker Bill, had already been laid off!

The Board essentially had no choice but to approve the So-Wow deal.

The contract, predictably, involves significant increases in gate fees at all the transfer stations that Ward will operate – from $4 per can to $5 per can and from $25 per cubic yard to $28 per cubic yard. But So-Wow’s “independently audited” profit is capped at $50k per year, the excess, if any, reverting to the County, and we're giving odds that will never, ever happen. Ward, a much more reputable fellow than three of the Supervisors, and certainly more reputable than the County's present trash czar, Mike Sweeney. Sweeney remains the only viable suspect in the car bombing of his late wife in 1990. But Ward, should he choose, and the man's not running a charity here, can pay himself enough to keep “profits” below the giveback threshold.

But Ward also plans to increase hours at the transfer stations and provide recyclable buybacks and other services not currently provided by the County. Ward will also invest in long-delayed facility improvements to the South Coast Transfer station east of Gualala.

When the County went out to bid for the services Ward will now provide, the only bidder was Ward. Nobody else seemed to think they could make a profit hauling trash from Mendo’s far-flung pickup points.

After years of stalling the issue seemed to be, for better or worse, settled.

But…

Within days of the Board’s vote to give over responsibility for the County's trash to Ward, the City of Fort Bragg rejected the deal.

The County and Fort Bragg are co-owners of the Caspar Transfer Station; approval of the contracts with SoWow also requires Fort Bragg's approval of the contract for the operation of the Caspar Transfer Station, which, according to the County’s new overall Solid Waste Czar, Boom-Boom Mike Sweeney, handles more than half of the trash that the six formerly-county-operated transfer stations handled.

On Monday, June 28, the Fort Bragg City Council rejected the contract 3-2.

“The deal was bad for Fort Bragg, bad for the county residents who live on the north Mendocino coast,” said Fort Bragg City Council member Dan Gjerde. “The county has long staked out a position that it wants the rates charged at each of the six county/city owned transfer stations to be the same rates at each site. But Caspar costs less to operate. So the question is, if Caspar customers do not receive a discounted rate at the gate, what is a fair way to distribute some of Caspar's revenues? Under the County's proposal, the surplus revenues would go to subsidize rates at the smaller transfer stations around the county, and Caspar customers would receive nothing for their money. Caspar customers will be paying rate increases of 12% to 25% (depending on the size of their waste cans). They will generate 50% of the revenues coming from all six transfer stations, and yet the profits from Caspar will be split between county headquarters in Ukiah and Solid Wastes of Willits. For the pleasure of sending Caspar's profits to Ukiah and Willits, the City of Fort Bragg will be on the hook to forever pay the county for Caspar landfill's post-closure costs, which will be $36,500 in 2010-2011.”

At the Fort Bragg City Council meeting, Gjerde made his opposition doubly clear.

“I do not support one penny from Caspar going to somewhere else in the county. We forever hear [the County] telling us that they cannot bear to spend one penny on the coast if it's not economical, in their opinion. Clearly in this approach, they are glad to take money from the coast and spend it somewhere else in the county. I think the hypocrisy is pretty apparent.”

The “somewhere else” Gjerde may have been referring to is the long-overdue facility upgrade on the South Coast that Ward was going to finance which would allow it to handle larger trucks which, in turn, would lower hauling costs.

Gjerde was uncharacteristically blunt on his Facebook page.

“To balance its solid waste budget, the City will not let the County double-tax the Caspar customers, either directly or through a back-door route with Solid Waste of Willits. In other words, checkmate. The County's road to privatization runs through the Fort Bragg City Council, and we said the deal was unfair to Caspar customers. After rejecting the contract, this letter [from the Fort Bragg City Council to the County] reminds County administrators they can't punish the Coast by raising fees at Caspar, because Caspar is already a self-sufficient operation. As I said, checkmate, County administrators.

“Let's see– inland supervisors abandon Mendocino Coast priorities: walking away from the Coast Animal Shelter, stonewalling actions to reduce GHG emissions, you name it. Now inland supervisors want Fort Bragg City Council Members to rubber-stamp a contract that unnecessarily and unfairly raises fees at the Caspar Transfer Station? Nope. Not gonna happen. Fort Bragg Council Members rejected the contract. Now it's time for the County's administration to work with the Coast.”

So-Wow owner Jerry Ward said that Fort Bragg's vote essentially kills the deal.

“I'm disappointed,” Ward told the Willits News. “But that's politics. I was not aware that the Fort Bragg council was going to discuss it on Monday. I wasn't informed of the meeting, otherwise I would have been there to defend our position. It was disheartening to learn that the Fort Bragg City Manager, Linda Ruffing, wasn't at the meeting either. She was on vacation. So she wasn't there to lend a voice. It's disappointing to have the City of Fort Bragg kill the whole deal. It would have been good for the county overall.”

So it’s back to the dumpster for the Board of Supervisors and Mike Sweeney, the latter having written most of the deal, and the deal is off with the County's transfer station operators workers clutching their layoff notices.

Supervisor McCowen has said the County intends to proceed with the layoffs.

* * *

Toward the end of the June 22 Board meeting, Supervisor Pinches brandished a letter from State Controller John Chiang saying the State can only keep writing checks until end of July when the state will again defer payments to schools and local governments. “Does that sound like they're broke?” joked Pinches. (Yes, John, it does.)

Board Chair Carre Brown didn’t see any humor in it: “It doesn't address it.”

“I think I'm going to frame this letter,” replied Pinches.

It could be appropriately placed on the wall next to the letter from Fort Bragg announcing Fort Bragg's deal killer.

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