Cowlitz County will have its chance to prove it can operate its Headquarters Landfill more profitably than a private company.
The conversation about contracting with a private operator ended Wednesday with County Commissioner Dennis Weber’s recommendation to shelve the idea for “a few” years.
“We need to give the county government a chance,” said Steve Taylor Kelso city manager and former chairman of the county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee. “The county’s Public Works Department ... they want this shot and to be able to prove their worth.”
Taylor said that he has no doubts about Republic Services’ ability to maximize revenue from the landfill. But if the company can do it, he said, why can’t the county?
Taylor said Kelso leaders were worried that promises of stable, low disposal rates with a private operator wouldn’t last.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody, including ratepayers in Cowlitz County, were going to be able to benefit from that change in management,” Taylor said. “We were not confident that those interests were first in mind for the proposals.”
By turning away from Republic, the county is passing up the company’s offer of an upfront payment of $15 million, an additional $6 million each year in revenue sharing and a five-year freeze on waste tipping fees, according to terms described this summer by County Commissioner Arne Mortensen. He championed the idea as a way to bolster the county’s budget, but the idea proved unpopular and was likely a factor in commissioner’s Joe Gardner’s decisive Tuesday re-election win over challenger Jerry Cooper. Cooper clearly endorsed the plan, which Gardner opposed.
Weber’s decision to oppose privatization made two of three commissioners against the idea, killing it. Mortensen was unavailable for comment Thursday.
County Public Works Director Mike Moss said he and his department are relieved that uncertainty about the future of the landfill is over. It has been difficult to make decisions or even hire people to run the landfill, which the county has been operating since it 2014. The county purchasing the landfill from Weyerhaeuser Co. and as been earning about $4 million a year profit off the operation.
“We’re excited for the staff,” Moss said. “This process has been a couple years and it’s good for the staff of the landfill to know the direction.”
Moss also said Public Works is starting work on a five-year business plan for the landfill that had been put off while discussions about privatizing it continued.
The plan will outline a product mix, the volume of waste coming in, needs for capital equipment and the number of full-time employees needed. Public Works is working with the Office of Financial Management to finalize revenue projections.
“From my standpoint, I am in total agreement that that is the right decision,” Taylor said Thursday.
Weber is recommending that the county hire three or four more landfill employees, costing the county $70,000 to $80,000 for each new employees’ salary and benefits. Taylor said Public Works will also receive “more suitable” equipment for the landfill.
Public works officials have requested an extra bulldozer, a mini excavator and paving for the gravel roads surrounding the site to reduce dust and mud. Moss said these needs would have eventually been requested anyway had Republic been contracted to operate the dump.
Weber also is recommending that the landfill accept municipal solid waste from the Puget Sound communities who ship garbage east and pay about three times what it would take to send to Headquarters. Weber said the county will start negotiations with Waste Control about getting other private haulers to bring garbage there, too.
This would bring in enough revenue, Weber said, to pay for extra landfill staff, odor control, traffic improvement and finding another way to capture and dispose of methane, which is currently fired off.
But Weber was also clear about not wanting shorten the facility’s 75-year life expectancy by accepting too much waste.
“These goals will also meet the challenge made by local industry leaders to have the Board of County Commissioners pursue a more active role in managing this $500 million asset,” Weber said in a press release.
Taylor said he and other Cowlitz County leaders are glad for the chance to prove the county is capable of landfill management. But the conversation could open up again, he said.
“Ultimately, if the county is not able to maximize the success of the landfill in-house ... we could look at privatization down the road,” Taylor said.
But, for now, he’s happy to see the change in direction.
“I am very pleased that it appears the county is going to halt the current effort to privatize the management,” Taylor said. “At least from Kelso’s perspective, we are looking forward to working with the county to update the solid waste plan.”