Although there are two government boards dealing with garbage already, a solid waste summit last week ended with the suggestion to form at least one more.
The difference this time, however, is that it would have some decision-making authority that could leave the city of Spokane without any users of its West Plains waste-to-energy plant.
“Why not create a board of trustees that sets formal policy?” asked Duke Kuehn, a Seattle-based consultant who was brought in to moderate the Feb. 2-3 summit, which included representatives from Spokane County governmental jurisdictions, at CenterPlace. “One jurisdiction gets one vote.”
While a committee will be formed to work out the details, in theory the new board could seek alternatives – such as long-hauling or land-filling waste -- other than utilizing the 20-year-old trash incinerator.
Currently, there exists the Solid Waste Advisory Committee and Spokane Regional Waste System Liaison Board, which both serve in an advisory capacity. The Spokane Regional Solid Waste system is controlled by Spokane County and the city of Spokane, however, and the city also owns the plant.
Spokane County commissioners, however, do have a say in how large amounts of money is spent at the incinerator. On Tuesday, commissioners unanimously agreed to a contract amendment for nearly $18 million in improvements – which could raise the current $98-per-ton rate in tipping fees to $110 next year if Spokane also gives its blessing -- to the plant. The upgrades are part of a three-year extension of the existing contract with Wheelabrator to run the facility.
Last week’s summit, however, was more focused on the long-term relationship among the current users of the waste system. There has been some long-held tension among various government officials that Spokane has too much of a say in how operations are handled, which affects how much ratepayers see on their bills. Many of those in attendance were dubious that any future governance structure would be amicable to all parties involved.
“I’m not sure you’re going to find a system that everybody wants,” said Spokane Council President Joe Shogan. “The city offers a service, the city runs it and the city issues the bonds. If the system is broke for the customers, each one has to do what’s best for them.”
But under the new governance proposal, what’s best of the customers – the participating governments – may leave Spokane with a trash incinerator that isn’t used. Each city and town would have voting member on a new board, though it could be weighted to be more favorable to users – like Spokane and Spokane Valley – that produce more garbage than the rest.
Since the Spokane legally owns the plant, it could be a voting member of the new structure and also the vendor. But once existing contracts to use the waste-to-energy plant expire – Spokane Valley’s and Liberty Lake’s are up this year -- municipalities could make use of other options such as long-hauling. Spokane Valley city officials have already stated they are not interested in taking on any bond debt.
Spokane Valley Council Member Bill Gothmann said ultimately he has to represent his constituents who may not be willing to see their garbage rates increase too radically.
“If the difference in tipping fees is $30 to $40 (a ton), then it’s an easy decision (not to continue to use the incinerator),” he said. “But if it’s only $5, then it’s ‘wait a minute.’”
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, however, reminded those in attendance that waste-management isn’t just about removing garbage – it also includes recycling and “clean green” efforts like composting and education programs. Those things, too, factor into the overall cost of providing waste-management service to constituents.
“Fundamentally, that’s fine,” she said. “But the details of working it out – that’s the heavy lifting.”