DADE CITY — Pasco Commission Chairman Mike Wells Jr. said he wasn't questioning the integrity of Cloyd "Flip'' Mellinger, assistant county administrator for infrastructure. He said it five times. But he certainly questioned the numbers Mellinger provided.
The back and forth last week ended with a unanimous commission following Wells' lead to again reject Mellinger's request to spend $400,000 to continue hauling county trash to a private landfill in Sumter County.
In February, with Mellinger absent, the board declined to act. Last week, the commission decided to bury the trash at the county's own landfill in Shady Hills for the next several months and track the expenses for comparison. Mellinger said it costs $32.15 per ton to bury the waste locally, compared to $26.48 to send it to the Heart of Florida Environmental landfill in Sumter County.
"I find it hard to believe it's going to be less expensive for us to drive it to wherever ... than to do it in our landfill,'' Wells told Mellinger.
In particular, Wells questioned why the per-ton cost to bury the waste locally included the $9.22 million expense of closing and monitoring the landfill, which could be 16 years away. The money, he noted, already is set aside in a reserve.
Subtracting the closing and monitoring costs – which are budgeted at $23.58 a ton – would put the local landfill expense at $8.57 per ton. Mellinger's initial information didn't include a break-down of those costs.
"We need to know everything if we want to make a decision,'' said Wells.
Mellinger prefaced his presentation with a statement: "With the good Lord standing beside me here, my integrity remains in tact. I don't have any back room deals and my allegiance remains for the betterment of Pasco County,'' he said. Mellinger hadn't appeared before commissioners in a regular meeting since Feb. 6. In the interim, the Tampa Bay Times reported:
• Longtime Solid Waste Director John Power retired abruptly in late January and said in his resignation letter that Mellinger led by intimidation and was focused on sending county trash to the private landfill in Sumter County. The strategy, Power said, contradicted the county's own ordinance and comprehensive plan that promoted burning waste to generate electricity in the county's plant in Shady Hills.
• Two days after Power hand-delivered his resignation letter, Mellinger formed a new company, Mellinger Environmental. Mellinger said Power's departure and the new company were unrelated.
• Without notifying the commission, Mellinger investigated the county joining a regional solid waste authority to try to purchase the Heart of Florida landfill owned by ACMS Inc., whose officers include Charlie Dean, the retired state senator and former Citrus County Sheriff, and his son. Prior to Power's resignation, Mellinger suspended the solid waste director for five days for not complying with his push to join the authority.
"I don't agree with you speaking on our behalf,'' Wells told Mellinger last week. "You should have gone to the board, but that's — it is what it is at this point.''
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The idea of a regional authority and a potential landfill purchase was lead by Marion County, where Mellinger formerly worked as utilities director, after it made a long-term commitment to the private facility. Marion County agreed in 2011 to pay $20 million to ACMS to bury its trash there for 30 years in a deal that equated to $8 a ton. The Marion County administrator at the time was Lee Niblock.
Amid some skepticism, Alachua County agreed in 2017 to pay half the cost of a study to survey local governments to gauge interest in a regional waste authority. The former chairman of Alachua's Environmental Protection Advisory Committee characterized the proposed agency and landfill acquisition as a bail out of Marion County.
The Alachua County administrator who recommended the study was Niblock, who moved to Alachua in 2014. Only Pasco and the city of Ocala showed strong interest in the authority, the survey reported March 9, the same day officials learned the proposed authority was dead because the landfill had been purchased by another suitor.
The Alachua Commission fired Niblock in August 2017. He became city manager in Marco Island in December, but was suspended and put on paid leave Feb. 20, while the Collier County Sheriff's Office investigates an allegation of battery against him.
A week before his suspension, Niblock traded emails with Mellinger about his new company, Mellinger Environmental, conducting an "efficiency review'' of the city's utilities department. That review raised questions because an ad hoc citizens group had done a similar evaluation of the utilities department in October 2017, according to the Coastal Breeze News, a bi-weekly newspaper in Marco Island.
A Feb. 12 email from Mellinger to Niblock proposed a $22,980 contract that reflected Mellinger dropping his hourly fee from $125 to $110 "in an attempt to demonstrate that we want your business.'' The proposed contract called for an estimated 174 hours of work.
Cutting the hourly rate by $15 would have reduced the total labor costs by $2,205, putting the proposed contract's value below $25,000. That's the threshold at which the city of Marco Island would need to seek competitive proposals from other vendors. The city manager does not need City Council approval to award contracts of that size.
A little more than an hour after Mellinger sent his email, Niblock told his purchasing agent to "process the appropriate documents to secure Mr. Mellinger's services.''
After Niblock's suspension, the no-bid contract was never consummated, said City Clerk Laura Litzan.
Unrelated to the proposed contract with Mellinger, Niblock's career in Marco Island ended Monday evening. The City Council, citing ethical lapses, voted unanimously to fire him with cause.
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2