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County Council, April 2

Council mulls the next step in recycling
And on plans for the Morrison Drive property
Warwick Jones

Under its new Chair, Council member Condon, the Recycling/Solid Waste Committee had its first meeting yesterday. Considering that it had a scheduled start 1 ½ hours before the start of that for the Finance Committee, a lengthy meeting must have been anticipated. It was lengthy, with more than half time taken up by an executive session to deal with “contractual matters”. The session might also have included discussion of the sudden departure that morning of Art Braswell, the head of Solid Waste, from the County employ. Before it broke for the executive session, the Committee discussed the new technologies that could be available to deal with solid waste disposal, and the results of a Request for Proposals (RFP) which drew interest from only two contractors.

Staff recommended that the County make no decision in relation to the proposals and wait until new technologies are better developed. Council will see presentations by both companies and make a decision at the Tuesday evening meeting.

The issue of reducing waste and increasing the recovery of recyclables has been around for some time. Staff was instructed last year to investigate the feasibility of new technologies and issue an RFP - to obtain information from parties interested in contracting with the County, to manage its proposed Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and to further process waste. As staff noted, 16 firms participated in the RFP but only 2 actually made proposals – RePower South and Waste Management.

Both firms chose the “mechanical” process to treat mixed waste (essentially the trash after the removal of the “blue bin” recyclables). Staff noted that there were a lot of technologies to consider and most were untried or barely tried. In our view, the proposals by the two firms were also in a way discouraging. How could their proposals be so far apart? Re Power South’s proposal was a charge to the County of $34.75 a ton, based on treatment of 261,534 tons annually. Waste Management ‘s proposed charge was $39.8 a ton on an annual treatment of 251,350 tons.

On face value, there seems little difference between the proposals. But the difference lies with financing the MRF. RePower South will finance the construction of the facility and the $34.75 fee includes the amortization of the outlay. Waste Management will not finance the MRF. It estimates the capital cost at $25 to $29 million and expects the County to fund it. We estimate that if the cost of the facility were amortized over the proposed 10 year contract term, Waste Management’s charge per ton could rise as much as 40%.

RePower South proposed a 25 year contract. Although there was uncertainty at the meeting as to the expected cost of the MRF, the amortization of the funding over 25 years as opposed to 10 years adopted by Waste Management, would reduce the per ton cost. So a comparison of the two proposals can only be made after adjustments.

Council member Rawl was not happy at the meeting and indeed, walked out of the executive session a considerable time before its ending. During the Committee meeting he noted that out of the 16 firms interested, only two bothered to make proposals. Why so much disinterest? Could it be that the County had asked for proposals to “complement” existing County arrangements? The implication was that interested firms were restrained because of the lack of flexibility to make changes.

We had a chance to speak with a representative of the paper and pulp industry who had travelled from Washington to attend the meeting. He noted that the industry opposed the recovery of paper and cardboard when it had been mixed with household waste. Effectively it had been contaminated and was not salable. He did not speak at the meeting but almost certainly staff know of the industry view.

We don’t know but we’d be surprised if Council ignored staff’s recommendation to wait before deciding on moving forward.

What to do with the County’s 8-acre property at 995 Morrison Drive was discussed at the Finance Committee meeting. Staff drew a list of possible options which included selling outright, or creating a PUD and developing it. Chairman Summey suggested a “call for offers” which he described as an amalgam of a RFP and a Planned Development. In this way, the County would get the views of industry and be able to make a better decision. It would also be under no obligation.

We thought the Chair’s comment had some support on the Committee. But it was pointed out that the time for public comment on developing Morrison Drive expired on April 7. It would be disrespectful if the Committee decided on a course before all comments had been collected.

Some of the comments from the public meetings were

  • The originally proposed 700,000 sq.ft. of floor space was too muchh. The maximum should be 500,000 sq.ft. But even so, it could be some years before it was fully occupied.

  • A parking garage will be needed on the site.

  • The block is too large and perhaps Cool Blow Street should be extended through it.

  • The streetscape and transportation options need to be considered.

The property is clearly very valuable and the market price probably exceeds $1 million per acre. It also lies within the City of Charleston’s hi tech corridor and will be subject to the City’s zoning ordinance. Staff noted that the City is reviewing the zoning ordinance and that the height limit is likely to be raised from the 80’ presently in place.

The resolution before the Committee had a predictable response. It called for the support of a national minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, up from $7.35 an hour. The higher rate was estimated to lift a family of 4 beyond the nationally defined poverty rate. The wording of the resolution was very emotional and in our view distorted. It focused on only the difficulties that a family would endure if living on a minimum wage.

Council member Schweers was the first to speak on the issue. He said he could not support the issue and noted that the Committee could spend hours in discussion. He would prefer to move on. Council member Darby was not in agreement. He wanted to know how people could not support an increase and asked how families could survive on low wages. There was more than a hint that Council members that did not support the $10 minimum were unreasonable and incredibly hard hearted.

Council member Schweers denied he was uncaring about the welfare of families on low incomes but it was not a County Council matter. Council member Sass supported him, but neither he nor Council member Schweers argued strongly against it. In our view, they reasoned that argument was pointless. And it probably was as Council split politically, those (6) with Democrat Party affiliations voting for it, and Republicans (2) against. (Council member Qualey was absent last night. Chairman Summey voted for it despite his Republican affiliations. He was a Democrat prior to the last election and when the composition of his electorate changed.)

We can understand Council members Schweers and Sass declining to argue strongly. But in our view, there was a lot of distortion in the argument for raising the minimum wage. Neither Council member Schweers or Sass would refute the difficulty/impossibility of raising a family on the minimum wage. But how many family breadwinners are earning only the minimum wage. There has been a lot said about the issue in the media and it is our recollection that the majority of minimum wage recipients are part time, supplementing other income, or awaiting other opportunities. They don’t make a career or plan a career working in McDonalds or other fast food restaurants. We would also refute Council member Pryor’s assertion that an increase in the minimum wage does not lead to job losses. We can’t quantify a likely loss but there certainly is anecdotal evidence that raising the minimum wage adversely impacts some businesses, particularly restaurants, often forcing their closure.

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