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Landfill sale buries idea of regional waste authority before Pasco can join

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times   A grapple crane is used to manipulate mounds of mixed and unrecyclable waste in a holding pit last month at the Pasco County Solid Waste Resource Recovery Facility in Shady Hills.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times A grapple crane is used to manipulate mounds of mixed and unrecyclable waste in a holding pit last month at the Pasco County Solid Waste Resource Recovery Facility in Shady Hills.
Published Mar. 12, 2018

Pasco commissioners learned in January their staff was in pursuit of forming a regional solid waste authority to buy a private landfill in Sumter County.

It was a controversial suggestion that ended the Pasco career of the county's longtime solid waste director. It also left commissioners in the dark since they had never vetted the idea.

Now, they apparently never will.

The proposal died March 9 when the leading advocate, Marion County, learned the intended acquisition target, the ACMS Inc.-owned landfill near Bushnell, was being sold to a different buyer.

"It's a different turn of events we weren't expecting today,'' said Alachua Solid Waste Director Sally Palmi.

Marion and Alachua counties split the $40,000 cost of a survey of local governments and a feasibility study on the proposed authority. Two hours before Marion commissioners met March 9 in Ocala to discuss that survey, county officials said they found out Waste Connections Inc. had a contract to buy out ACMS. It effectively killed the authority before it ever formed.

So how much interest did Pasco, which uses its plant in Shady Hills to burn trash and generate electricity, have in a regional agency to buy a landfill?

Pasco "distinctly had interest in moving forward'' Mike Sims, Marion's solid waste director, said March 9.

Only Pasco and the city of Ocala registered an interest, according to the survey. Among nearby governments, four counties and the city of Gainesville were listed as "somewhat interested.'' Three governments said "not interested'' and one, Lake County, said it wouldn't even respond to the poll without direction from its elected commissioners.

That wasn't the case in Pasco where the idea received brief mentions in a Pasco commission workshop 14 months ago.

Cloyd "Flip'' Mellinger, assistant county administrator, and formerly utilities director in Marion, spoke at that November 2016 workshop. At the time, Pasco officials said they had negotiated a 15-year agreement to use, on an as-needed basis, a private landfill in Sumter County. The cost of disposal was $26.49 a ton, about the same as operating the county's trash incinerator.

The landfill, known as Heart of Florida, was owned by ACMS Inc. Its officers include Charlie Dean, the former Citrus County sheriff and state senator, and his son.

"There are people in central Florida talking about developing an authority and perhaps going to buy ACMS,'' Mellinger told commissioners. It would be a multi-county organization, he said, and "give government control of its own destiny and perhaps lower that cost.''

Commissioners didn't respond.

Later in that meeting, Mellinger talked of trying to defer an expansion of the county's incinerator, which was operating near capacity. The cost has been estimated at $190 million to increase the plant's disposal capabilities by nearly 60 percent.

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"We could scrap everything and send everything up the road (to the ACMS landfill) for 15 years and potentially be at net zero,'' said Mellinger. "We're good for 15 years. Does that get us to the revenue we need to build the facility?''

Again, commissioners didn't comment.

Mellinger now says that information was inaccurate.

The county's contract with ACMS is for five years with a pair of three-year options to extend. The Tampa Bay Times asked Mellinger why he pursued the proposed authority without commission direction to do so.

"As with anything team members bring to the (commission) for consideration, we must study and understand what it is. The county solid waste master plan calls for spending millions of dollars in transfer and disposal costs prior to opening the waste-to-energy expansion. Anything county leadership can do to minimize those expenditures is worth investigating — by studying the costs and benefits and presenting our recommendations to the board,'' Mellinger said in a statement.

He also said the county needed to protect its own interests. He estimated the savings in disposal costs from the county's contract with ACMS could top $30 million between now and 2028, when the expanded trash incinerator is supposed to be completed.

"Another possible benefit of participating in the authority would have been moving forward with the (trash plant) expansion and selling the excess capacity with partners,'' he said.

But the idea to buy the privately-owned landfill led to the abrupt retirement of long-time Solid Waste Director John Power. He resigned in January, saying Mellinger's focus on joining Marion County in a regional authority to bury trash contradicted the county's comprehensive plan and ordinance promoting incineration at the county's plant in Shady Hills.

At the time, Mellinger characterized the county's 27-year-old commitment to the trash incinerator as outdated during a time of a growing population producing more trash for disposal.

The pursuit of a proposed trash authority caught commissioners by surprise. Chairman Mike Wells Jr. was the most outspoken.

"We need to stop putting trash in the ground. We need to focus on expanding the incinerator and expanding recycling,'' Wells said after Power's departure.

The focus elsewhere has been on the private landfill, which opened in 2013. Marion County has a vested interest in the landfill's long-term operation since it helped bankroll its development. The county agreed in 2011 to pay $20 million to bury trash there for 30 years. It equated to a bargain-basement disposal rate of $8 a ton at a time locales elsewhere were paying more than five times that much to get rid of their garbage.

Even then, the idea of a regional authority was broached. The younger Dean told the Ocala Star Banner in December 2011 that Marion County was well positioned to profit from other users of the ACMS landfill if it lead the authority.

But profits apparently haven't materialized. A year ago, Sims, the solid waste director for Marion County, told his commissioners the ACMS landfill was receiving 1,100 tons of waste daily, but "in order to maximize the capacity of equipment and staff to produce a profit, the facility will need to increase the waste intake to 1,500 tons a day not including the waste from Marion County,'' according to minutes from the Feb. 13, 2017, workshop.

In other words, the landfill, with Marion County as a leading investor, needs paying customers.

While the idea of a regional solid waste authority hadn't been vetted publicly in Pasco, it has sparked public debate in Alachua County.

Lee Niblock was Marion County county administrator when that county negotiated its deal with ACMS in 2011. Alachua hired Niblock to be its county manager in 2014. And in May of last year, Niblock presented the Alachua Commission a plan to join Marion in studying the regional authority. Marion County, he suggested, was being altruistic.

"They had the good fortune to want to share that opportunity in a possible landfill operation with a sold waste authority," he said.

Some of his board members were skeptical.

"What I think about when I think about a solid waste authority is I just have questions with regards to how a new level of government that dilutes this board's authority, that encourages more waste, brings on additional potential environmental liability, (is) probably not consistent with many components of our comprehensive plan, is a good idea,'' said Commissioner Ken Cornell.

Robert Palmer, the former chairman of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, was even more blunt. He quoted Sims' figures back to the Alachua commission.

"I don't think your job is to bail out Marion County. I think your job is to look out for the citizens of this county,'' Palmer said.

On March, 9, Mellinger addressed the Marion board after a commissioner there suggested Pasco's high interest in the authority might prompt it to replace Marion in leading the charge for a regional authority.

"Pasco's interest was ACMS,'' said Mellinger. "In any case, I don't think we're looking'' at leading a regional agency.

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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