CITY VIEW – How you turn a schmooze series into a schlimazel

Posted July 11, 2013

For the last six days the local daily has been producing stories covering the City of Guelph’s six-year waste management experience. The series is described by gueelphspeaks as a schmooze to present the exclusive city’s views of its waste management policies. Unfortunately, the pieces lack any counter views from those who disagree with city policies.

The duty of any responsible newspaper is to present both sides of the story when reporting the news. So far this schmooze series has failed on all counts and has eclipsed as a schlimazel of misguided facts and self-serving information.

In the Wednesday schmoozie, the reporter travelled to Brampton to investigate the city’s lone waste incineration plant that produces steam from garbage to a nearby paper plant. It generates nine megawatts of power, most of which goes to the paper plant. The balance is sent to the Hydro grid.

The article quotes the plant manager saying the construction is capital intensive. Translation: There is a lot of up-front capital required. He was not quoted how much, but if the cost of our organics processing facility is any example, the cost will be big-time.

The Mayor says the waste management plan is currently being updated and she has expressed interest in burning garbage destined for the landfill to create energy and heat.

Last year 54,000 tonnes of Guelph’s waste went to the landfill. In contrast the Brampton plant incinerated 175,000 tonnes. Do you get the feeling Guelph is not ready for prime time waste management?

That wasn’t the Farbridge tune played in 2007 when her council refused any proposal to incinerate waste to generate power. Instead, they spent $52 million on the compost plant and collection system.

So here’s the rub. The city won’t tell us how much the organics facility costs to operate. It also refuses to tell us how much the finished compost is sold or to whom. The facility operator, Wellington Organix, a subsidiary company of the original contractor Maple Reinders, deems all this information proprietary. Read that, not for public consumption.

In 2007, newly re-elected Mayor Karen Farbridge, decided to pursue the failure of the compost plant built in her first term as Mayor, and her council approved a new plant costing $33 million. This figure is now like an amoeba it keeps changing almost daily, depending on whom you talk to.

That first experiment with composting cost the city a $40,000 fine and the manager was fired. Apparently the building was disintegrating and causing sickening odours wafting into the neighbourhood.

That didn’t deter the Mayor. Today, six years later, taxpayers are stuck with a plant in which they financed but have no knowledge of the operation or its costs and/or benefits to the taxpayers.

It was built to accommodate wet waste streaming from other municipalities.

And this is only the beginning.

The city processed 105,915 tonnes of garbage in 2012. More that half of it went to the landfill. Some of the more sensitive material such as medical waste went to an incinerator in Niagara Falls, New York.

Just to refresh your memory, in 2006, the Kate Quarrie administration contracted to send all garbage to an incineration facility in New York State. The cost was $85 dollars (US) a tonne.

Even if the city had done nothing but extend that contract, today we would have available capital totaling more than $50 million to spend on a new downtown library and south end recreation centre.

We would have lower debt costs, lower taxes and facilities that serve the people of the city.

There would be zero environmental issues. Our city would be cleaner that a hound’s tooth.

Most of all, we would blunt the obsession of this administration to inflict a waste system that is overbuilt, overpriced and transparency is denied.

And now they are working on a 25-year waste management plan?

Please sir, more porridge.

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11 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

11 responses to “CITY VIEW – How you turn a schmooze series into a schlimazel

  1. joseph phelan

    Speaking of waste…..does the name Farbridge ring a bell?

  2. Scott Tracey

    Oh Gerry, that drum must have a hole in it from all the pounding you do on it.
    I know you’re smart enough to realize the energy-from-waste story did not include a single Guelph voice suggesting building such a facility, so why pretend it did? Facts don’t support your argument, I guess? (Not that you’ve ever lot that stop you)

    • Scott Tracey: Yes I am smart, smart enough to know the genesis of this series. You are a good writer but too close to the trees to see the forest, if you get my drift. This city, where I live and pay taxes, is in a financial mess. I’m not the only one saying this it comes from knowledgeable people who have parsed successive annual financial statements. One of the sorriest financial mistakes of this administration was using taxpayer money to build that waste facility and letting an outside firm run it…in secret. Also, there were people suggesting that incineration was an option in 2007 but it fell on the administration’s deaf ears. A dominant group of elected officials were obsessed with composting instead of incineration. Scott, we will disagree from time to time but I appreciate your work. Been there, done that.

    • Scott Tracey

      With respect Gerry, you are confusing two issues. Incineration (as in energy-from-waste) is an alternative to landfilling, not an alternative to composting. It is a means to deal with the stuff in the grey carts or clear bags, depending where you live.
      You will also recall the vast majority of residents, or at least those who made themselves heard, were in favour of dealing with our own waste within our own borders, which is why council pursued the new composter.
      The “genesis of the series” as you put it was to update the waste management system after another week-long series seven years ago. As stated in my column today, I believe the system is finally working well.

  3. Rena

    That is all very well and good, however why won’t the City reveal the true costs to the taxpayers who have funded this operation.

    • Scott Tracey

      People keep saying that, but I’m not sure what they are looking for. The organics plant had a slight profit ($40,000) on its operating budget last year. As far as capital, the plant was budgeted at $32.8M but was built for $31.5M.
      As well, the cost of switching to automated collection has been well-documented.
      Which “true cost to taxpayers” are you looking for?

    • Scott Tracey: Let’s try this again. There are three major systems available to divert waste from the landfill, something on which we agree. These include incineration with a byproduct of producing energy; recycling and reusing; composting with a byproduct of producing useful compost. The Farbridge administration attempted to compost waste in the Mayor’s first term of office with disastrous results, all of which are documented. When re-elected in 2006, The Mayor pressed forward with expanding the compost system. There were people who questioned the wisdom of council to pursue building a “world class” composting plant. The citizen coalition of waste management folks come to mind.

      That decision in 2007 eliminated any alternative method of diverting waste to the landfill. The process was ultimately painful and expensive. But here we are, up and running and, according to your statement in a following comment, the organics plant made a small profit of $40,000 in 2012. Where did that come from?

      The taxpayers have yet to be told the details of financing their plant: This includes the operating costs, what contracts were made with third parties to operate the plant, how much is being paid on the sale of finished product?

      And now, with your announcement that the plant made a “small” profit, what is the basis of that claim? The taxpayers who put up the money have a right to know.

      That vast majority of people you mentioned, who were in favour of dealing with our waste within our borders must be scratching their heads today. After discovering that Guelph decided to show the world it was a waste management leader, two-thirds of the capacity of the plant has been sold to the Region of Waterloo. Is that not outside our borders?

      Unfortunately, there was no apparent risk and reward analysis done before we spent more than $33 million. The door is now closed to spending money to incinerate waste and generate power to be used in our community. There is no money. There is no money to build a downtown library, a south end recreation centre or a parking garage on Wilson Street.

      Scott we both realize that the sudden idea of redoing a six part series on waste management was driven by a growing criticism of the way this administration has handled the project. It is mindful of the debacle over the relocation and renovation of the Farmer’s market. To defend costly dumb political decisions is your right just as it is my right to question those decisions. And Scott, I am not alone.

  4. David Birtwistle

    I’m not too sure which waste bag/cart to place the foregoing replies unless the City’s come up with a “blog reply reduction/diversion program”;please advise.david.birtwistle@sympatico.ca

  5. Milton Burns

    *Scott. To suggest that the organic operations had a profit means you are gullible and a financial nincompoop. It is no wonder that you totally avoided any mention of costs in your 7 series articles. Rather than being number one, Guelph was dead last among the 15 cities and regions documented in the Thursday issue. Expenditures per household were 71.1% above the average. Five had expenditures per household that were less than half of Guelph’s level.
    You are right, however, waste will not be a political issue as long as Guelph’s comparable waste costs remain hidden.

  6. Scott Tracey

    Gerry,
    Indeed, let’s try again and then I will take my leave of this conversation.You say “the door is now closed to spending money to incinerate waste and generate power to be used in our community” but with respect, that door was never open. Incineration is simply too expensive for Guelph to do it itself and therefore generate power for local use.
    The current talk of incineration would see those materials we are currently sending to landfill — clear bag stuff — instead sent to an EFW facility if the cost was comparable to what we are already paying. The wet stream is not part of any incineration/EFW discussion, nor would it be even if the city had not built the organics plant. (Those who run the EFW plant dont want organics because they dont burn very well, and obviously burning it would be a lost opportunity to regain the energy from it)
    Which brings me to Milton’s point. I pointed out only that the organics plant had a profit on its OPERATING budget. Obviously we’re still paying all the capital costs of building the thing.
    And those who criticize the city for building such a large facility are missing — or ignoring — that if we built a smaller facility only to handle Guelph’s waste, it wouldn’t have allowed the city to collect the revenue from Waterloo which is the reason there is a small surplus from the facility in the first place.
    I find it amusing those on forums such as this who suggest that our eyes are closed or our reporting is biased. Glance in a mirror once in a while.

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