By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A little-noticed power play that could substantially affect how much most Broward residents pay to dispose of their garbage through the next decade is set for a preliminary vote Tuesday at the Broward County Commission.
Wheelabrator, the private company that owns and operates the county’s two waste-to-energy plants, is pushing for early approval of a lucrative new agreement that would allow it to handle trash for 26 Broward cities for at least 10 years. The current agreement expires in 2013.
But the enormity of the $1.5-billion deal, and the fact that it was not competitively bid despite the high cost of trash disposal, has led some savings-minded cities to consider pulling out of the 26-city municipal coalition formed in 1986 to deal with Broward’s solid waste problem. If enough cities balk, the deal could collapse or perhaps lead to further price concessions from Wheelabrator.
What happens will be determined by a series of votes by the county and municipal members of the Broward Solid Waste Disposal District on whether to approve a new inter-local agreement (ILA). Wheelabrator’s parent, Waste Management, is dangling the incentive of a scaled “signing bonus” to cash-strapped cities who sign up before Dec. 31.
At the county, the vote won’t merely be on whether to give conditional approve the new ILA on behalf of the unincorporated areas. At the same time, county records show that commissioners will decide whether to transform the now county-dependent disposal district into an independent body with the ability to issue bonds and levy a special assessment.
Miramar and Oakland Park are two cities that think they can get significantly better deals elsewhere. And at least one other, Lauderhill, wants to think about it, too.
Miramar’s city commission voted 3-2 last week to pass up its opportunity for a $725,000 “signing bonus” by deferring approval and instructing staff to seek competitive bids from other companies that have expressed interest in the work.
“This is a very rare opportunity for us to test the free market for solid waste disposal service that could return greater benefits to the city,” said Miramar public works director Thomas Good.
Oakland Park, where public works officials have said the city can save upward of a half-a-million dollars a year if they go out to bid, appears poised to take a similar route.
At Wednesday’s Oakland Park commission meeting, City Manager John Stunson questioned the legality of the bonus payments, which vary based on how many tons of garbage cities generate. And a majority of his commissioners balked openly at approving the ILA and re-upping with Wheelabrator, which has long held a monopoly.
“I’m outraged that 20 years have gone by without a bid, and they want to do it again for another 10 years? And another 10 years after that? You tell me how that’s in the best interest of the residents of Broward County,” said Vice Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue after the meeting.
The city commission votes Dec. 15 on whether to accept or reject the new ILA and a potential $420,000 signing bonus.
On Thursday, Lauderhill commissioners agreed to hold a workshop on Dec. 13 to study the matter.
“I like to explore all options,” said Vice Mayor Howard Berger. “What Miramar has done sounds reasonable.”
To become effective, the proposed ILA must meet two thresholds. The cities that approve it must represent at least 51 percent of the population of all the cities in the current ILA, and at least 80 percent of the waste delivered to the waste-to-energy plants in 2009.
The chief administrator of the Resource Recovery Board, the governing body of the Broward Solid Waste Disposal District, said balking cities have been misled by their public works staffs into thinking they can get a better deal elsewhere.
“The staff presentation in Miramar was very flawed,” said RRB executive director Ron Greenstein, also a former state legislator. “We are far cheaper than anyone else because of our economies of scale.”
Through last week, 13 cities including Hollywood, Plantation and Coral Springs had approved the new ILA and qualified for bonuses. Fort Lauderdale and Lauderdale Lakes vote Tuesday. Deerfield Beach votes next week, according to Greenstein.
At least some of the undecided may be affected by what happens Tuesday at county hall. An initial vote to approve the ILA would demonstrate county support for the non-competitive deal the RRB negotiated with Wheelabrator and confidence in its ability to act independently. It would also net a $165,000 signing bonus for the county.
Such institutional change would mark the second defection this year of a large, big money agency from under the direct control of county government. The disgruntled Metropolitan Planning Organization, Broward’s federally-funded transportation planning group, became independent in August.
Influential members of the county’s Resource Recovery Board – including Weston Mayor Eric Hersh and Broward Commissioner Ilene Lieberman – have pushed quietly for district autonomy for months. Lieberman also serves as RRB chair. The nine-member RBB, which includes eight municipal elected officials, is the governing body that controls the district’s waste flow and sets its disposal fees.
The switch to independence is included in the ILA proposal the county commission considers Tuesday.
“The key implication of this change in status would be that the budget of the district would no longer be approved by the county commission,” says a county staff analysis of the issue. “The district does have the ability to levy a special assessment…but is generally funded by the tipping fees paid by waste haulers.”
County staff recommends passage, conditioned upon certain assurances from the district regarding about potential future liabilities and approval by enough cities to meet the required threshold.
Still, there is little or no discussion in the 12-page staff analysis as to why such a change is needed or the possible pros and cons.
Oakland Park’s Boisvenue, who is also a member of the RRB, opposes independent status.
“I think it needs oversight from the county. When you talk about this kind of money, you’ve got to wonder why this is necessary and who’s going to benefit,” she said.