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After changes, questions, Hernando commission delays waste-to-energy decision

BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a freshly drawn contract, a new wrinkle in the financing plan and serious questions from the two new commission members, the Hernando County Commission decided this week to delay a formal decision on a proposed waste-to-energy project until the new year.

They did agree that the county should conduct its own feasibility study on the plan before considering whether to approve a contract with Freedom Energy Inc., the selected bidder on the project to turn the county's municipal waste into energy-producing pellets for the next 20 years.

Various versions of the project have been debated over the last two years, leaving some county officials reluctant to make what some residents say seems like a hurried decision, based on a lengthy contract proposal just penned last week and recent word from the applicant's finance company that the county should be the conduit to float bonds to pay for the $20 million plant.

Commission Chairman Nick Nicholson wasn't daunted by the new information. He pushed for the commission to approve the contract immediately but build in language that required a feasibility study to be conducted by the financial backers of the project, who would have the biggest incentive to make sure that the plan will work and produce a profit for the company.

Nicholson stressed that the county would have no responsibility for the funding of the project, so the county was protected.

Deputy county attorney Jon Jouben said he just learned Monday that Freedom Energy's financial backer wants the county to have its name on the tax-exempt, unrated private activity bonds that would be sold to pay for the project. He noted that having the county named on the bonds required another level of scrutiny.

Commissioner John Allocco raised concerns about that new information because, just last week, Nat Mundy, president of Freedom Energy, said in an email to Jouben that Clerk of the Court Don Barbee had given him incorrect information.

"Our proposal states and the attached contract confirms, the county is in NO WAY backing, funding or providing bonds for our project,'' Mundy wrote. "Add this to the long list of misinformation purported by staff.''

On Tuesday, Mundy's attorney, Jake Varn, discounted the contradicting information, saying the county had no responsibility for paying back general obligation bonds.

Mundy also gave a detailed presentation to the commission, the first for new commissioners Allocco and Steve Champion. He explained his background with a similar project in Orlando and talked about spending years of his life working with waste-to-energy technology. Mundy also explained that there were numerous potential clients in the area for the energy pellets the plant would produce and that some of the fuel items now used by those companies are being phased out.

While Champion said he liked the waste-to-energy idea, he said he wanted to be sure the county's taxpayers were protected.

Allocco said he didn't know where the idea came from. It was not in the county's strategic plan. And he didn't see the urgency of approving the contract immediately.

The item is slated for consideration by the commission in late January.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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