Warner Robins considering all options in longtime trash dispute

mstucka@macon.comApril 5, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- Mayor Randy Toms wants the city “to look at all of our options” to deal with a costly recycling and trash contract that effectively prevents the city from doing any recycling for years.

“I wouldn’t say we’re at a point where we’re considering further litigation,” Toms told The Telegraph. “However, we’re looking at what the contract says and what’s being done and what’s not being done.”

Warner Robins residents may be paying a premium for garbage collection in a deal that effectively prevents the city from doing curbside recycling -- precisely because the city was already supposed to be doing it.

The city plans to spend about $6.9 million this year on trash pickup through the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority, an entity whose entanglement with a short-lived recycling facility has put it about $70 million in the red.

Warner Robins has long been fighting the trash contract, which was signed in 1996 with an air of great optimism. City officials at the time talked about how the deal would be good for city residents’ wallets and the environment. Neither promise came true, and the city’s 25-year contract still has nearly a decade to run.

Meanwhile, the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority’s lawyer says he believes the agency is holding up its end of the bargain.

From promise to pain

Cities and counties that contracted with the Crisp County authority were told they’d see their trash turned into money. The authority would poke through residents’ trash to pull out all the recyclable materials, which would then be sold. Only 20 percent of the things residents threw out would end up in a landfill. The rest, 80 percent, would be recycled for profit, enough profit that the governments in the deal would get a cut. In all, 39 governments signed contracts, including Warner Robins.

“I do not see any way we could have passed this deal by,” then-Mayor Donald Walker previously said.

It was a big project for a new agency in a small place. Contracts for recycling came from all over southwestern Georgia and even out of state; Warner Robins was said to be the largest customer outside Crisp County itself. The city shut down its own twice-a-week trash department because the new arrangement called for Crisp County to be the exclusive recipient of trash.

The recycling plant outside Cordele began operating in May 1998, but late that year it laid off most of its employees and changed management. An effort to use inmates to cut labor costs was shut down by the state Attorney General’s Office within months.

Accusations, and sometimes lawsuits, flew. The authority blamed managers and the engineers for the plant’s failure, while they threw the blame right back. One thing that wasn’t flying: 1,500 tons per day of municipal solid waste, most of which was supposed to be recycled and turned into cash. Instead, all, or nearly all, of the trash went straight into a landfill.

At one point, the recycling plant was losing about $750,000 a month. The losses couldn’t be sustained. With no money coming in, the Crisp County agency couldn’t pay the bonds, and an insurance company stepped up to cover the payments on the bonds used to build the recycling facility -- and brought its own allegations of fraud.

Warner Robins City Attorney Jim Elliott said a Crisp County judge validated those same bonds before construction began. The bonds, a kind of loan, were supported by the Crisp County agency’s contracts with government. The bond validation process also validated the contracts, making them extremely hard, or impossible, to break under state law.

None of the financing arrangements prevented Warner Robins from trying to get a fix for its problems.

The city filed suit over its trash contract in 2002, claiming in part that the Crisp County agency wasn’t doing the recycling and other activities it had promised. A Houston County jury agreed in 2004, finding the Crisp County agency broke its contract with Warner Robins in three different ways. The jury gave Warner Robins a Pyrrhic victory, finding the city hadn’t been damaged when the agency failed to uphold its end of the contract and ordering the city to pay the Crisp County agency nearly $1 million, mostly in back fees.

The city also launched two later cases in Houston County State Court. Neither helped Warner Robins get out of its contract.

Elliott said the city’s basic complaints remain.

“We believe that our folks were clearly misled and all those kinds of things. We’re not by any means the only ones on this sinking ship,” said Elliott, who said he’s heard of other unhappy contractees.

Now what?

Warner Robins residents pay $16.50 per month for trash service, compared to $11 for their counterparts in unincorporated Houston County, who also get curbside recycling.

Elliott said the city has about 38,000 residential trash customers. Multiply several dollars’ difference by thousands of customers by 12 months a year, and those cost differences add up quickly, Elliot said. Using those numbers, the difference is about $2.5 million a year between how much city residents pay now, and how much they’d pay as unincorporated Houston County residents.

“There’s a lot of money in waste,” he said.

But Elliott was cagey about what, exactly, the city could try to do with the Crisp County contract.

“We’ve got some attorneys looking at various issues,” he said.

Toms also refused to be specific.

“It’s a dilemma we need to move forward or figure out if we can move forward on. We’re working on it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s dead in the water, only because I want to do what’s best for the citizens of Warner Robins.”

A reporter asked him whether that would mean the city would try to get out of its contract altogether, try to get recycling, try to address complaints or do something else.

“I wouldn’t want to answer that without knowing more what our options are,” Toms replied. “I want to look at all of our options and figure out what’s best.”

Edward S. Sell III of Macon, the attorney for the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority, said he believes the authority is holding up its end of the contract.

“As far as I know, it’s fine,” he said.

Other communities contracted with the Crisp County agency for a much shorter period. Peach County signed a three-year contract, buying it time to build a lined landfill.

The state ordered all unlined landfills closed by April 1998. State efforts to reduce the solid waste stream resulted not in mandatory recycling but rather in the separation of yard waste from household trash.

Meanwhile, trash trucks in Warner Robins pick up the waste, which ultimately is taken to a landfill in Taylor County.

The recycling facility itself was to get a new life in 2007, when Macon businessman Phillip Davis was working to build an ethanol plant and restart recycling operations. That effort ultimately failed, adding another black mark to the history of Davis, who was at the center of Bibb County’s failed Westside stadium fundraising effort, which the county had to take over.

Now, the recycling plant has a new plan and a new owner, Synergy Solutions.

The Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority sold off the recycling center for about $7 million in November to Synergy, said Sell, the authority’s lawyer.

The agency still has three trash transfer stations, including one in Warner Robins, to claim as physical assets. Its main assets are purely financial: the contracts made with city and county governments.

Warner Robins’ contract is scheduled to end in early 2022. State law strictly limits the duration of contracts made with private companies, such as a trash hauler. But Warner Robins’ long contract was possible only because the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority is formed as a government entity, which allows half-century contracts.

“The thing we ought to be thankful for,” Elliott said, “is we’re not under a 50-year contract.”

Telegraph archives were used in this report.

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