Danny Thompson's specious landfill numbers

The question of what to do with Greensboro’s solid waste has receded somewhat as a campaign issue since 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.

During a forum hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress at the downtown library last night, 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 RFP 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 that 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. 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 the city’s solid waste consultant and staff, and at odds with the councilman’s own statement from the dais (background) 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 accept 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 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 states 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 explained that 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 gone with a private service instead. In any case, Thompson’s assertion that Gate City was the lowest cost bidder is based on conjecture considering that the company withdrew its proposal before council had an opportunity to vote on a final contract.

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.

“We know that it’s taken staff time and energy,” she said. “We know that it has brought the community together, but the council didn’t listen. When you have three RFPs going out there, you have all of staff’s time, all of this energy, and our council did not even listen to the recommendations from city manager. So those things adding up, the perception is out there that the RFP was a done deal, but what wasn’t planned on was that several organizations in Greensboro, including the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, of which I’m a part, looked and this and said, ‘This is wrong.’ So many organizations in Greensboro pulled together and said, ‘This is wrong. This entire process is flawed.’”

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. I think we’re going to have to look at what’s going to be best for Greensboro…. Recycling has got to be one of our priorities to make our footprint less. If we’re not going to reduce our footprint then our waste problem is not getting better; it’s getting worse. So I think a top-flight recycling program, educating people on composting. I think that would be good. That would help reduce waste in our city. And then I think you have got to look at your plan. What is your short-term plan and your long-term plan? And look at each one of them and look at the cost associated. I think regional solutions are probably our best option. And then we’ve got to look at waste-to-energy plans that are maybe not right now, but they are going to be in the future — they are going to be beneficial for our city. Because those actually reduce your waste even further and it reduces your footprint even further.”

What Lawyer left unsaid is that he is on record in support of reopening the landfill.

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. I think that’s certainly something we need to do. We could also, by implementing the Sustainability Action Plan, increase our recycling, reduce our own waste, reduce our costs and actually increase some of the income the city receives. And we would look for a regional solution. Randolph County is one possible option with a longer-term solution being possibly technology/waste to energy. But all of this would be done in cooperation with the citizens of Greensboro and listening to the citizens of Greensboro and coming up with a solution that suits all of us. Because there are solutions that do reduce our costs without having to make our neighbors live in trash. Because I personally do not want to force my neighbors to live in trash and have trucks going down the road and rodents running around and the horrible smell that they would have had to endure.”

Johnson said, “I think that we need a regional solution in the short term. I don’t think that the landfill should be reopened for some of the reasons I stated before — economic development. And no major city in North Carolina, no major city has a landfill in their city limits a few miles from your downtown. And so I think waste to energy is something I have proposed for a very long time. And I think it’s very possible to do it at our transfer station when the technology is ready or when we get a “godfather” deal where we don’t have to plunk down anything. But 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.”

Candidates took different positions on the Sustainability Action Plan. The current council voted unanimously to accept rather than adopt the plan in January, and then promptly shelved it. Prause asked if candidates would implement the plan.

Vaughan said the reason council accepted rather than adopted the plan is because in the past the council had voted to implement neighborhood plans, and residents actually tried to hold the city to them when rezoning decisions came up.

“So we’ve stopped adopting and we’ve started accepting things,” Vaughan said. “But accepting things I think you can take the best parts out of it. I think it does demand that we have a further study of it, that as a council we need to sit down and review it, which we haven’t done. It doesn’t have to require a lot of money. My daughter’s school has won the ‘Green Cup Challenge’ two years in a row. They cut their utility bills by 30 percent, just by doing some basic steps. I think if we could educate our staff on certain sustainability things that they can do every day that we could take strides for it. So I do think it’s a plan that we have to look at and that we have to take it in small bites. I wouldn’t be willing to do the whole plan at this point. I think we need to look at it and prioritize it.”

Lawyer echoed Vaughan’s stance.

“I think we have to break down that plan and see what we can make work in that plan and what may not truly work in the long term,” he said. “I think that plan has some good components. But it’s also got some plans that may not [work] for long-term sustainability. I think that’s where we’ve got to look at this and make sure we’re looking at the pieces of this that are long term for us, not short-term gains. We need to look at long-term gains that we can potentially maximize in this. And that will hopefully save money in the long term for us.”

As mayor, Johnson established the Greensboro Sustainability Council, which drew up the plan.

“I’ve read this plan,” she said. “It is an excellent plan. I spoke in favor of this plan. And I would hope this council would take it and really study it. And we would talk about it. And if we want to begin at a certain point, fine. But if something’s going to save our city $20 million and it’s not going to cost us anywhere near that, it’s something I think we ought to pay attention to. And as much as I want green jobs to be a part of Greensboro’s culture, I think this is definitely a reason that I would definitely promote it.”

Since the campaign has gotten underway the emergency of Occupy Greensboro has highlighted mounting frustration with the failure of government to effectively address economic insecurity. And national media coverage this week singled out Greensboro as emblematic of a national trend of surging poverty in the suburbs.

Abuzuaiter and Abraham fielded a question about how they would address a crisis of “high unemployment, rising poverty and a feeling of despair among many of our citizens.”

“We need to listen to our community,” Abuzuaiter said. “There are brilliant minds in our community. We need to bring everyone to the table. We need to come together to try to solve these issues. We have 20 percent poverty rate in Guilford County. Another item is that 35 percent of the students in our schools are living in poverty. We really need to address these conditions that our people are going through. I would certainly propose and hope that we bring our minds together and come to some solutions in order to create the jobs that will eventually solve all this. Do we need to be promoting our sustainable community? Of course. Do we need to be trying to help our local community? Of course. There are several initiatives going on there. The Greensboro Currency Project. There are so many things that can help sustainability. But we’ve got to address the immediate needs at hand. We have people who are starving. If you haven’t noticed lately, there is an increase in the homeless population. Our homeless shelters do not have beds for women. They are taken up every night. We have nothing there for women to go to, to spend the night in a safe and warm environment. All of these things need to be addressed. Can we solve it with one council? Of course not. But I certainly hope that we can bring our community together, have everyone bring their ideas and suggestions, work with our nonprofits and churches. When we all come to the table there are brilliant things that can happen. And I do believe we are going to need to involve the community to make that happen.”

Abraham said, “I do agree that we’re in a crisis situation when we have rising unemployment and rising poverty, we see median incomes declining in our own area, when an article in The New York Times says, I think it’s an 83 percent increase in what is referred to as ‘suburban poverty.’ And we know that where we live is suffering economically. We have to do something about it. That is why I am focusing my platform on economic development. Because, in my opinion, we have to take whatever resources city government has available to it, and move them into restoring our own economic growth. And that’s why I’ve proposed the buy-local campaign and even redirecting some of the city’s spending. And looking at how we can pull together public and private capital. And looking at how we can restore funding or even increase funding for the economic development partnership. And restoring our infrastructure spending. If we are able to have savings from deals that we make for reducing our waste costs, those savings need to be redirected towards maintaining our roads. That will create jobs. People will get jobs working on our roads. So there are all kinds of things we can begin to do, and we need to do, because we’re in a situation that can’t wait.”


Eric Ginsburg said...

I find Thompson's comment pretty telling, that he referred to Gate City Waste Services as DH Griffin rather than the proper name.

Jordan Green said...

Yes, at least in that aspect, there's a degree of honesty. And it saves me the trouble of explaining the relationship by degrees of association.