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County's solid waste management system faces budget shortfall

Waste to Energy facility
Reduced trash volume is contributing to a projected $1.6 million revenue shortfall for Olmsted County's waste-to-energy facility.

In most cases, less garbage is a good thing. But when you need garbage to burn, it can be a problem.

Such is the case for Olmsted County's solid waste management system, which is facing a serious budget shortfall due to a lower volume of garbage coming in from 11 trash haulers in the county.

The county's Environmental Resources department estimated up to a $1.6 million revenue shortfall for the solid waste management system in 2012. Part of the problem is that people are getting so good at recycling, there is less garbage for the county's Waste-to-Energy facility — which is part of the integrated system — to burn.

That shortfall might turn out to be less, depending on trash volumes and other factors during the rest of the year, said Environmental Resources Director John Helmers.

Helmers presented a status report of Olmsted County's solid waste management system to the county's Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning.


The waste-to-energy facility was built 25 years ago to burn trash and, thereby, reduce the need for more landfill space. In 2010, a third burner was added to the plant to increase its capacity, as county staff and board commissioners believed a growing population would mean more garbage.

Just this spring, the plant began burning garbage already in the Olmsted County landfill, located in Kalmer Township. Also, the county purchased equipment, such as a shredding machine to break down large items, to further advance the plant's ability to burn trash in the landfill.

The county pays for the waste-to-energy facility's operations primarily through charging "tipping" fees to haulers, and a service fee the haulers collect from their customers for the county. Currently, the service fee is 17 percent of the garbage bill, Helmers said.

Additional revenue comes in through providing steam for 37 Rochester buildings, including for the Mayo Civic Center and Rochester Community and Technical College.

Beginning around 2009, the amount of garbage coming into the plant decreased, and then plateaued. The decrease is likely due to people recycling more and the nation's economic downturn, county staff and commissioners agreed.

The trash volume is not expected to increase during the next several years, as was projected, and that's a problem in terms of operating expenses and making the county's annual $7.7 million debt service payments for the waste-to-energy facility, Helmers said.

Money borrowed for a variety of projects to maintain and expand the plant makes up the debt, he said.

In September, Environmental Resources staff members will present a number of options to the board commissioners for how to solve the budget problem, County Administrator Richard Devlin said.


The options could include adjustments in the trash haulers' tipping fee, which, today, is $83 per ton of garbage. Another option might be to increase the service fee. Helmers said it started at 5 percent in the mid-1990s and didn't change until 2009, when it went up to 17 percent.

Despite the current budget challenge, board commissioners agreed that the waste-to-energy facility was a good addition to the county because it reduces the need for landfill space and creates energy while exceeding air pollution limit standards.

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