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Tampa says it’s taking over waste-to-energy plant to save money

The city has given its contractor eight months notice that it plans to take control of the facility that turns trash into energy.
The city of Tampa has given notice that it plans to take over the McKay Bay waste-to-energy plant shown in this 2001 photo.
The city of Tampa has given notice that it plans to take over the McKay Bay waste-to-energy plant shown in this 2001 photo. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2019|Updated Oct. 16, 2019

TAMPA — When Tampa officials broke the news last week to the 40 or so employees of the McKay Bay waste-to-energy plant, it came as a surprise to many.

But Public Works Administrator Brad Baird said the plan for the city to take control of the facility that turns Tampa’s trash into enough electricity to power 13,000 homes has been in the works for about a year.

A consultant’s study found that city operation of the plant could save up to $5 million a year, which would allow the city to invest in upgrades and improved maintenance.

Unlike Wheelabrator Technologies, the New Hampshire-based contractor that has operated the plant for 30 years, the city doesn’t need to make a profit. Instead, city officials say they could invest in reducing mishaps that occasionally shut the plant down, causing garbage to be sent to landfills instead of turned into ash and heavy metals.

“From a business standpoint it made sense to go in that direction,” Baird said.

Wheelabrator officials thanked the city and community for a good working relationship during the company’s long tenure as plant operator.

“We look forward to continuing to provide our operational and technical expertise to the City of Tampa during this transition period,” said Pete DiCecco, the company’s vice president for waste-to-energy.

The city hopes to hire all of the 40 or so current employees at about the same pay, though by becoming city workers they would be eligible for pensions and union membership. Some details need to be worked out, such as the carry-over of seniority and covering any insurance gaps, but Baird said the city is confident it can be running the plant by early June.

The city also plans to add an additional 10 positions. All employees would become part of the city’s Solid Waste Department. Nearly all of the positions will be union jobs, an exciting development for the city’s blue collar union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1464, said president Stephen Simon.

For decades, municipalities nationwide have been privatizing services like trash collection, but Baird doesn’t see the change here as a trend.

“It’s pretty much a one-off,” Baird said.

Solid Waste operations are run as an enterprise fund, meaning its budget is supported by fees from users instead of property taxes. The additional positions won’t trigger higher taxes, Baird said.

A visit about a year ago to Spokane, Wash., which converted to a city-run plant, convinced Baird and other officials that Tampa would benefit from incinerating trash itself.

“We found we could do this,” he said.

The city informed Wheelabrator last week that it planned to terminate the $19.5 million per year contract in June for $2.5 million, although that price will likely decrease through negotiations, Baird said.

The City Council will be briefed Thursday and likely have to approve three budget amendments to consummate the deal.

Council member John Dingfelder said he’s confident the city can handle the takeover.

“We are a big city that has operated water and wastewater plants for decades. We are fully capable of operating the ‘waste to energy’ plant, ultimately saving millions of dollars,” he said.

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