Solid waste contract remains contentious campaign issue

by Jordan Green

The question of what to do with Greensboro’s solid waste has receded somewhat as a campaign issue since September, when Gate City Waste Services withdrew its proposal to operate the White Street Landfill in September. Yet the issue is far from settled: The city holds a contract with Republic Services to handle the city’s solid waste through the end of the year. And the six candidates vying for the three at-large seats on council hold different positions on the issue.

Early voting in Greensboro City Council elections is open throughout this week, and Election Day is Nov. 8. During a forum hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress at the downtown library last week, moderator Marsh Prause asked some of the candidates to address a perception that Gate City Waste Services was preordained as the selected vendor to operate the landfill long before the vote was taken.

“The third proposal, the [request for proposals] that we went through based on five different companies — there was a myriad of five different rates that they proposed based on the quantity of trash that would go into the landfill,” said incumbent Danny Thompson, who was one of four sitting council members who attempted to reopen the landfill. “When the consultant got up and did his PowerPoint presentation he picked two out of those five to say, ‘Well, here’s some of the lower rates.’ “As you probably may have read in the News & Record op-ed piece, what I have always stated is that we should take our own green garbage cans — household residential trash — put it in Phase III of the landfill,” he continued. “That would take up capacity [for] 15 years. And there would be only one fourth of the trucks that are going through neighborhoods. And at that rate, at that volume, DH Griffin was the lowest-cost provider. And you also have a flat rate where it’s not escalating with a percentage of rate increase over time. And so that’s the reason I then and continue to say that that was the best deal for Greensboro.”

Thompson’s statement that DH Griffin — a local demolition company whose executives are majority partners in Gate City Waste Services, a solid waste vendor pre-selected by city council to operate the White Street Landfill — was the lowest cost bidder is at odds with the views of city staff and the city’s solid waste consultant, and at odds with the councilman’s own statement from the dais before voting to initiate contract negotiations with the company.

After Councilwoman Trudy Wade made the motion, Thompson clarified, “The company that she mentioned, Gate City Waste Services, down at the bottom — their rank is second.

Under the scenario referenced in Wade’s motion, as outlined by consultant Joe Readling, the city would have accepted 140,000 tons per year, extending the life of the landfill to seven and a half years. That would equate to 11,167 tons per month. Considering that Gate City Waste Services offered the city a fixed rate per ton, it could provide the lowest cost arrangement — but only if the landfill accepted less than 10,000 tons per month; other companies proposed to discount the rate as the volume increased. In other words, the model adopted by council in the motion contemplated a waste volume in excess of the tonnage at which Gate City Waste Services could provide the lowest cost.

While Thompson stated that he favors the landfill accepting only household waste, he voted for a model that also includes city-collected commercial waste — totaling 140,000 tons per year.

During a break at the forum, Thompson said the city could have negotiated with the Gate City to impose a transfer fee for every ton of commercial waste, which then could have been rebated to the city. That in itself would not have necessarily reduced the monthly tonnage of solid waste to make Gate City the most competitive bidder, but it’s conceivable that some commercial customers might have balked at the transfer fee and switched to a private service. In any case, Thompson’s assertion that Gate City was the lowest-cost bidder appears to be based on conjecture about what might have been negotiated in contract talks that were never finalized.

Nancy Vaughan, who has served as mayor pro tem over the past two years, is effectively running against fellow incumbent Thompson on the issue. “I think the reason why there is that perception out there is because whenever there was an opportunity to look at something else, such as talking to Republic Services, who, at that point said they could save us $3.5 million as opposed to $3.1 [million] without opening the landfill, it was voted down on a 4-3 vote,” she said. “And something like that is a little hard to defend. If there’s a possibility that you’re going to save more money and not open the landfill, why not have that discussion? I think it was things like that that contributed to the perception that this train was going to DH Griffin whether or not they liked it. I have to say that I think council contributed to that by not listening to staff and not taking their advice and doing things that they suggested that might have put us in another direction.”

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a challenger who has been active in efforts to keep the landfill closed, also criticized the process to select a vendor. The handling of the selection process lent itself to a perception that the decision “was a done deal,” she said, adding that “many organizations in Greensboro pulled together and said, ‘This is wrong. This entire process is flawed.’” Abuzuaiter is a member of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, which signed on as a plaintiff in a lawsuit to keep the landfill closed.

The three other candidates outlined their thoughts about forging a solution to the city’s solid waste challenge going forward.

“The key to this is going to be good communication amongst all the members of the council and then communication with the citizens,” challenger Chris Lawyer said. “So in order to find the best solution we’re going to have to have good communication.”

Lawyer added that the city needs to ramp up its recycling program to reduce the waste stream, pursue a regional solution and explore waste-to-energy technology. Lawyer is on record as being in favor of reopening the White Street Landfill, but only as a temporary measure and only if appropriate management is utilized to curb odor and control rodents.

Challengers Wayne Abraham and Yvonne Johnson put forward similar proposals for handling the city’s solid waste that emphatically reject reopening the landfill. “Certainly I don’t think we need to reopen the White Street Landfill,” Abraham said. “I think we should take Republic Waste up on its offer. They offered us a deal where we could save three and a half million and not have to reopen the landfill.” Johnson said, “To have a regional plan in the short term is the best plan because even if the landfill’s open you only have about four years. Then where’s our trash going? What do we do? We’ll be in a pickle again.”