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DeWitt: Commissioners help obscure questions about waste-to-energy

Jake Varn's performance at last week's Hernando County Commission meeting was masterful — could have even been entertaining, if not for some serious concerns:

Varn, a Tallahassee development lawyer, was asking the county to commit $69 million over 20 years to a private company with limited resources and a suspect business model.

And two commissioners, Diane Rowden and Nick Nicholson, seemed less concerned with doing their job — standing up for taxpayers — than helping Varn stage his show.

"Mr. Varn, where were you born and raised?" Rowden asked.

"I was born and raised at 217 East Liberty Street, which is — if I could hit a golf ball — I could probably hit it from here," Varn said as he slipped his hand inside his blazer and placed it over his heart.

"There's a part of this that remains in this county," he said. "I'd love to think I've done a great many good things for this county, and I'm not about to blemish my track record by leaving (it) with a detriment and a liability."

Cue Nicholson:

"I've been coming to commission meetings since 1986, and Mr. Varn is highly respected in what he does. . . . He's a man of great integrity. . . . When he walks into a room, people know that he's here to protect the people."

That, of course, is doubly wrong, because Varn has advocated any number of misguided, sprawl-promoting subdivisions over the years, and because his duty is not to protect the people, but to advance the interests of his clients, in this case a company that wants to get its hands on the one of the county's most reliable revenue streams: landfill tipping fees.

That company, Freedom Energy Hernando LLC, has an admirable goal: divert garbage from the county landfill, sort out recyclable metals, shred what's left and compact it into burnable pellets.

It hopes to sell these to a buyer, maybe one of the nearby cement kilns or the biomass electric generation plant north of Brooksville. The promise of this revenue — along with $39 from the county for each of the estimated 88,000 tons of garbage the company would process annually for the next 20 years — should allow Freedom to build its $20 million processing plant.

Sounds good, probably too good.

Freedom owner Leland "Nat" Mundy has said that his company — chosen over two others for the waste-to-energy job and currently negotiating a contract with the county — is not currently operating a plant. Though he's spent a career in the business, he said in May, he hasn't run one for several years, and couldn't name another similar system in place in Florida. And even the waste-to-energy operation in Minnesota that Varn mentioned as a model is struggling to compete with landfills.

"We have to make sure the law is enforced," said Trudy Richter, executive director of the Minnesota Resource Recovery Association.

Her use of the word "law" is a clue of how different things are in Minnesota than in Florida.

There's an entire statute there devoted to encouraging waste-to-energy, including rules that require utilities to generate a certain percent of their power from renewable sources and that steer refuse to these plants rather than to landfills.

Also, the waste-to-energy processing plant that Varn alluded to, in Elk River, Minn., was built by surrounding counties that all had to take out 20-year bonds. And a power plant specially designed to take this product is just 2 miles down the road.

Mundy, on the other hand, must finance his own plant and sell his pellets — less energy-rich than coal and burnable only in plants with specially designed emissions controls — in a market flooded with clean, cheap natural gas.

And the company can't name its customers, it wrote in documents submitted to the county, because they won't commit until the plant is built and they can analyze the product.

That's Freedom's problem, not the county's, Varn said after his time before the commission, generously granted to allow him to argue that the project would not cost the county $1 million per year, as a staff report had shown, but allow it to clear about $3 million.

"That's a $4 million difference, sports fans," Varn said.

There county's interests will be protected in the contract, he said, and there is a unique opportunity in Hernando because of its high landfill tipping fees — $54.50 per ton — and its proximity to potential customers.

But what will happen if Freedom can't find a buyer for its pellets? Will they just accumulate next to the plant, and will the county be called upon to help? How will the county rebuild its landfill operation if it has signed away most of its tipping fees for the next 20 years? What exact guarantees will be in place?

That commissioners failed to ask those questions just gave more credibility to critics who say this plan is about politics, that it is mainly designed to benefit insider Tom Barnette, who has said he will gain financially from the plan and who has supported the campaigns of Rowden, Nicholson and Commissioner Wayne Dukes.

It made it look as though Varn's presentation was really designed to gloss over doubts, not address them — that it was, just at it a appeared to be, nothing more than a show.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

DeWitt: Commissioners help obscure questions about waste-to-energy 10/18/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2016 5:12pm]
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