By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County ratepayers are currently losing out on $30,000 a month because county officials balked last month at approving a new contract with the public agency that oversees composting services at the Mecham Road landfill.
There is a wide gulf of opinion over who is responsible for the costly holdup, which centers on a proposed new five-year lease between the county and its Waste Management Agency, which manages composting operations.
No one disputes the lost savings.
“We are going to spend $120,000 more than we have to,” said Windsor Town Manager Matt Mullan, a member of the waste agency board.
“Every city is going to bear that burden, and the county,” he said. “The county comes in at the 11th-and-a-half hour and says we can’t support this. My frustration is, why are you waiting until now?”
But county officials said last week they weren’t given adequate time to review the lease for a section of the landfill used by the Sonoma Compost Co. under a contract with the waste agency.
The waste agency vote on the contract, which was to cost the agency and its ratepayers $30,000 less a month, was June 20. It was 9-1 in favor, but needed to be unanimous because of its size. Susan Klassen, the county’s representative on the board, voted no.
“The only thing we had on the lease was a draft, a week before the meeting,” said Klassen, deputy county director of transportation and public works.
Liability and indemnity issues need to be fully resolved before the lease can be signed off on, she said.
However, the waste agency’s chief, as well as other board members, said the new lease was substantially similar to the old one. And they said the county was aware of the process for months because Klassen is on the board, which in November asked for the contract to be re-examined.
“They actually recommended the model to us so there was a dialogue that took place,” said Henry Mikus, the agency’s executive director. “It’s not like they were ambushed; the fact that a new lease came was not a surprise.”
Klassen suggested it was not her role to shepherd the process and said she had expected the contract and lease to be ready for review together. Instead, the contract was ready in April, while the lease was not delivered until June.
“I could have been every month reminding them that the lease needed to be done, but I was comfortable that the executive director was working on it,” she said.
The waste agency had proposed the old lease be extended until the county approved the new one — but in the meantime the new contract was to kick in right away.
But Klassen said that would have been impossible, because proceeding without a new lease arrangement would have left the county, which owns the landfill, without the security it needs.
“It’s not okay,” she said Friday. “We need to have liability insurance and control over it, some sort of agreement that protects the county.”
Instead,County Supervisor Mike McGuire said the lease issues are critical to the county and must be addressed. But, he added, “The partners within the agency were surprised and we owe them an apology.”
To give the county time to review the new lease, the agency’s board at the June 20 meeting extended the existing contract for four months.
Phil Demery, director of Transportation and Public Works, said the issue is larger than short-term savings.
The future of the landfill — which state water regulators forced the county to close in 2005, and which was reopened in 2010 — is still uncertain, he said. And it’s likely that the composting operation would have to be relocated before the proposed new contract term was up.
“I don’t see what the benefit is of the county entering into an agreement that takes us to 2017 if we’re going to need that space,” Demery said.
“Say they get an agreement to 2017, and a lease to 2017, what is the incentive to move? I don’t think there is a financial incentive to move.”
Mikus said that the proposed deal with Sonoma Compost includes clauses allowing for it to be terminated if the county needs the landfill space.
Until the issues can be resolved, Klassen said the contract had to be extended for as long as it was because the process of reviewing it, presenting it to county supervisors and allowing for any further changes and negotiations would take time.
“It is the normal course of negotiating an agreement,” she said.
Government watchdogs called it wasteful.
“That just seems like a horrible inefficiency,” said Dan Drummond, a Santa Rosa attorney and executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association.
“If you’ve got a chance to save $30,000 a month, you jump on that,” he said.
Supervisor David Rabbitt said the loss of the savings was “unfortunate,” but that “we could be losing $30,000 a month if we don’t go through and make sure the lease is what the county needs to protect itself.”