Focus, Government, and Sustainability

Grand Rapids refuses county’s solid waste plan

City commission views the disposal concept as inequitable.

February 1, 2013
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Grand Rapids refuses county's solid waste program
Mayor George Heartwell is a proponent of recycling, but he and city commissioners have a problem with a solid waste plan developed by the Kent County Department of Public Works.
The city of Grand Rapids and Kent County have agreed on a lot of things over the years, like the single-stream trash recycling plan the two created.

But as far as the city is concerned, the county’s current Solid Waste Management Plan isn’t going to be one of those.

City commissioners unanimously rejected the plan recently, which was put together by the Kent County Department of Public Works and was approved by county commissioners last year. Actually, the existing plan is the second one DPW created, after private trash haulers loudly objected to the first. Oddly enough, the city liked the county’s first plan, and the haulers liked the second one.

Mayor George Heartwell said the City Commission refused to accept the plan because board members saw it as unfair to the city. He said the city has paid for the cleanup of its Butterworth Landfill, about $6 million, and did so without any outside revenue even though other municipalities took their refuse to it. In addition, he said the city spends roughly $125,000 each year to maintain the site.

“Nobody stepped up to help us to do that, and now we’re being asked to share the cost of remediating all the county landfills, which is unfair to us,” he said.

The reason the county DPW initiated a new solid waste plan was to raise enough revenue to pay the legacy costs for its three landfills, a cost of $38 million, and the DPW only has about $18 million set aside for that work today. The sites are in Kentwood, Sparta and Plainfield Township.

Another reason Heartwell said Grand Rapids rejected the plan is that the city, along with five other cities in the county, has been disposing of its trash under the county’s flow-control plan. That plan requires the cities to haul their trash to the county’s waste-to-energy facility. Heartwell said having to go to the facility is an expensive practice for the city when compared to being able to dump in a landfill.

“We’ve been paying just about double the cost. I think at the peak we were paying $73 or $75 a ton for tip-up. At the same time, the landfill tip-up fee was something like $35 to $37 a ton to tip. So we’ve been paying the cost for the waste-to-energy facility — we being the six cities,” he said.

“We’ve paid all that cost and amortized all those bonds. We made an important environmental investment that we all agreed was the right thing to do, and we still do it because it still is the right thing to do. But we’ve paid more than our fair share.”

Prior to the commission’s vote on the issue, Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said the new plan would cost the city about $125,000 more annually in disposal costs.

“This charge was not anticipated in the business plan for the city’s restructured refuse service,” DeLong said.

Even so, Heartwell said the commission’s decision wasn’t as much about the additional expense for the city. He said it was more about the inequity of the added charge, an injustice that wasn’t in the county’s first plan.

“The original plan that (DPW Director) Doug Wood proposed to the DPW (board) was a good plan. It had our support,” said the mayor. “It was affordable, but then the private waste haulers weighed in and it was terminated.”

Early last year, the Michigan Waste Industries Association, which represents haulers, criticized the plan. MWIA President Dan Batts said the DPW’s original plan would cause some haulers to go out of business, would prevent communities from getting competitive bids for solid waste services, would require all trash and recyclables to be taken to a county-run facility, and would allow DPW to act as a monopoly and charge above-market rates.

Although Wood disputed those claims, the DPW board went back to the drawing board and came up with version 2.0, and the county commission approved the new plan in November. Wood also said the landfills’ legacy costs will come due in 2025 and the department has already spent $25 million on the three sites. The cost to maintain the landfills is rising at a faster rate than the revenue DPW receives.

Under the second plan, a surcharge would be added to haulers’ disposing bills and they would pass the increases on to their customers. Wood said each county resident would pay an estimated 40 cents more per month for pickup, businesses would be charged by the size of their trash containers measured in cubic yards, and manufacturers would pay roughly $7 more a month, on average.

“All of the waste haulers voted in favor of that rule. All agreed it would be a line item on their waste-hauling bills,” said Wood last October.

But Heartwell pointed out that the city is in a different position than the haulers. “We do our own hauling here and it’s not quite the same for the city,” he said. East Grand Rapids and Wyoming also have rejected the plan.

Twenty of the county’s 30 cities and townships have to approve the solid waste plan before the DPW can send it to Lansing for the state’s ratification. Because the 21 townships aren’t required to send their trash to the costlier waste-to-energy facility as six of the cities are, support for the plan is more likely to come from the townships.

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