Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Aug. 9, 1999

Wright County giving up on compost facility

By John Holler

For years, the Wright County Board of Commissioners has halfheartedly given its endorsement to the county's failed compost facility.

But privately, most of the commissioners have realized that the facility was doomed to failure almost from the start. The public face on the matter was to hold out hope that the facility could be saved.

That feeling has waned over the last couple of years, and, for the first time at the Aug. 3 board meeting, the entire board discussed ridding itself of the facility all together. The matter was discussed as part of approving the minutes of the ways and means committee of the whole, and it became very apparent that previous hopes of reopening the facility are through.

"The feeling now is why should we try to reopen it?" Commissioner Jack Russek said with a shrug. "There was no market for the compost, we had to raise the price of having garbage delivered to the facility, opened up lawsuits and didn't have the control on the flow of garbage. We were operating at a loss and it's come down to whether we want to keep beating a horse that's already dead."

The board has discussed selling the land and buildings that the equipment sits on, which has an assessed value of about $4 million, but it may not be that simple.

When the county built the facility, it received a $2 million grant from the state, which has indicated that if the plant was sold to a private interest, the county would have to repay more than half of that grant fund - a prospect that angers the commissioners.

"It's not like we didn't give composting every chance we could," Commissioner Ken Jude said. "We gave it every opportunity we could to make it work and I think that grant should be forgiven and we should be allowed to sell the plant. The plant isn't closed because we gave up on it. We were forced out and the state knows that."

Selling the facility will not erase the massive debt associated with it. Currently, every property in Wright County is taxed $42 a year to pay off the debt on the facility. While the sale of the land could reduce the cost per year, the bonds on the facility will continue to require payment until the year 2010.

The frustration the board has felt over the loss of flow control is heightened by the fact that composting as a rule likely had no chance to succeed.

"I don't know what kind of data the commissioners who approved the facility received, but it wasn't anything we could apply," Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said. "The composting facilities they looked at then were from Europe, where there was very little in the way of plastics and metals in the waste stream. We have much more plastic in our waste streams and probably have twice as much now as we did back then."

As hard as the county had tried to come up with a compost product that would serve as the anticipated high-quality fertilizer, it never happened.

"You couldn't grow weeds with that compost," Russek said. "That's why nobody wanted it. We couldn't give away enough of it to move it off the site."

With the compost plant seemingly dead, the board must move to the next phase - deciding what to do with the building, land and equipment. Jude hopes the process can move quickly and finally bring an end to the ill-fated decade-long saga of composting in the county.

"I want to find out if we can get the grant money forgiven by October and put the matter on the ballot in November and let the people decide what to do with it," Jude said. "They never got a chance to vote on it originally. I want them to finally have a voice on what to do with it."

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