By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
The bruising battle over which firm can tap into Broward County’s multi-million dollar waste stream is back to where it started: With a no bid deal.
“This is another debacle. In my opinion, such non-competitive arrangements are bad governmental practice,” said Phil Medico, a lawyer with upstart Sun Bergeron, which is seeking to bid competitively for Broward’s waste disposal business.
At stake are the costs of garbage disposal for residents and businesses for years into the future. Also at stake are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earnings for companies seeking to dispose of Broward’s trash.
The fight for the lucrative deal has pitted two powerful corporate players – Wheelabrator Technologies, a subsidiary of the sprawling multinational Waste Management disposal titan, and Sun Bergeron, a new creation of the real estate/development/rock pit mogul Ron Bergeron. Both are fielding teams of lobbyists and attorneys.
Wheelabrator has held the current contract for decades.
Homeowners and businesses pay a single fee for two separate parts of garbage removal. A hauler picks up and delivers trash to a disposal site. A disposal firm sorts the waste for recyclable material and then buries or burns the remainder.
The current struggle is over the second part of the process – disposal.
A NEW DEAL EMERGES
Wheelabrator doesn’t want to lose its exclusive government contract, or share it. With its contract expiring next year, the firm fashioned a no-bid deal with County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and the county’s Resource Recovery Board.
But some cities balked. An after ferocious lobbying by Sun Bergeron, Wheelabrator’s $1.5 billion, no-bid contract was rejected by the county commission a year ago with critics calling the extension a bad deal.
A new version of the no-bid Wheelabrator deal surfaced last month at the Resource Recovery Board. Called the RRB in the industry, the board is a group of city and county officials whose job is to find a regional solution for waste disposal. The idea: to develop an alternative in case a plan by Miramar to put a bid out for disposal services – a bid other cities could use – faltered.
The new deal discussed at the RRB is being negotiated between Wheelabrator and a handful of city managers led by Weston’s John Flint. The talks between Wheelabrator and the managers have been going on quietly for a year.
Those meetings are closed to the public, and to Sun Bergeron. A Sun Bergeron representative who tried to attend was turned away. Although the talks are being held in private, any agreement will have to be ratified by commissioners of various cities at public meetings, said Flint.
Flint told the RRB that the city managers are discussing a five-year deal starting next year with options beyond that date. He conceded the group still has to work out the cost.
Whatever the eventual agreement on price, Sun Bergeron says lower prices can always be obtained through a competitive process.
For proof, Sun Bergeron points to Miramar. Miramar City Commissioners were so upset with the no-bid deal that the county was pushing last year that officials went out to bid on their own. The prices it received through competitive bidding were roughly half those contained in the initial Wheelabrator proposal.
Medico, which won the bidding, said Miramar’s experience proved what should be done for the entire county – competitive bidding for disposal.
“The beneficiaries are the residents,” he said.
Still, Miramar has yet to actually award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on. And that has created uncertainty that’s offering new hope for a deal to Wheelabrator.
“The question is what’s Miramar going to do, and when are they going to do it?” said an official at another city.
LEAVING WELL ENOUGH ALONE
Wheelabrator’s supporters say the firm has done a superb job since the 1980s disposing of millions of tons of garbage from 26 of the county’s 31 cities.
“If it’s not broke don’t fix it,” said Beam Furr, a Hollywood city commissioner and member of the Resource Recovery Board.
Other officials say that Sun Bergeron is untested and they doubt it can deliver cheaper rates, despite winning the Miramar bidding that featured rates at $9.25-per-ton less than Wheelabrator. They point out that Sun Bergeron owns no landfills or waste-to-energy plants in Broward and will have to ship garbage a longer distance. Wheelabrator owns two local processing facilities– one along Florida’s Turnpike in North Broward and the other just south of Interstate 595 on U. S. 441.
Flint said the safety of signing with Wheelabrator is one reason he is negotiating an agreement with just that firm.
“The agreement eliminates risk” by tightening the agreement to protect the cities, Flint said.
Backers of Wheelabrator said they preferred a firm with a proven track record instead of a newcomer like Sun Bergeron.
Medico bristled when asked about accusations that Sun Bergeron’s competency was being questioned.
Southern Waste Systems, Bergeron’s partner in Broward disposal, has dozens of municipal and industrial clients including Fisher Island in Miami-Dade County, where the waste must be barged to the Port of Miami, shipped to Broward for recycling and what’s left sent to a landfill in another part of the state. “This is a walk in the park compared to that,” he said.
Bergeron picks up hurricane debris in dozens of cities and counties, plus is rebuilding Interstate 595. “Do you really think that the guy who coordinates hundreds of different tasks to build 595 can’t dispose of waste? Ridiculous,” said Aleida “Ali” Waldman, Bergeron’s general counsel.
Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick towards the end of Wheelabrator’s current 20-year contract, which expires in the summer of 2013. The company is pushing hard for the no-bid renewal.
“Due to our experience, expertise, and 20-year record of success, we believe Wheelabrator can provide the cities the most economical and environmentally sound waste disposal agreement,” William Roberts, Wheelabrator’s vice president of operations wrote in a letter distributed at the RRB.
But when questioned at the meeting by Lieberman to discuss just how economical Wheelabrator was willing to be, Roberts said he wasn’t authorized to publicly talk about prices.
Lieberman isn’t waiting. She will shortly bring to the county commission the general concept of a new no-bid Wheelabrator deal, but no firm agreement.
The outline of Flint and the city manager’s no-bid agreement with Wheelabrator will be made public in February or March.
And Sun Bergeron will continue to push for competitive bidding everywhere.