Mounds of garbage collected for recycling sit at the site of the now-closed recycling facility in Crisp County.
CORDELE — As the debate over the collection of garbage fees in Lee County rages on, set to become a key issue in July 31 primary elections in the county, a vital element of the debate is often hinted at but rarely discussed.
Lee County’s 25-year contract with the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority is given short shrift not because it isn’t seen as crucial to the issue. It’s more a case of lack of information. The agreement, which County Attorney Jimmy Skipper calls “legally binding” and County Administrator Tony Massey calls “one of the most one-sided I’ve ever seen,” extracts some $2 million from the county’s budget annually.
Part of that cost, according to officials, is for payment on indebtedness tied to the construction of a massive recycling facility built in Crisp County in 1996, a facility that failed miserably. That almost $70 million boondoggle now sits vacant, idle for the better part of a decade, stacked with mounds of garbage.
Millions of dollars worth of equipment is stored in the sprawling facility, guarded 24 hours a day by deputies with the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office.
“When they designed that facility, the engineers just messed up,” said Ed Sell of the Macon-based Sell and Melton law firm and the Crisp Waste Management Authority’s attorney. “There were a couple of key issues: One is that it was impossible to hand-pick recyclable material from garbage fast enough to justify the cost of labor, and two is that there just wasn’t enough recyclable materials in rural garbage.
“They tried to make a go of it, but it pretty quickly became evident that this was not going to work.”
Solid Waste Authority Executive Director Gladys Bishop did not immediately respond to an email request seeking an official list of the counties and municipalities that had, like Lee County and the city of Leesburg, signed long-term contracts with the authority, but a list provided by an outside source shows 26 area governments that are doing business with the Crisp County facility.
Both Sell and Skipper say the long-term agreements, which are a point of contention for several of the governments, were essential to the development of the authority — and the construction of the recycling facility — in the first place.
“To borrow the huge amount of money it would take to get this thing going, the language in the contracts had to be so tight that there would be no disputing it,” Skipper said. “If it hadn’t been clear that these various governments would be bound to the authority for the long-term, no bond company would have been willing to finance the project.”
Since entering into those contracts in 1996, a number of government representatives have grown disgruntled with the terms of the pact. Former Lee County Administrator Alan Ours sent an email to Skipper three years ago asking him to try and get the county out of the agreement. Skipper’s answer at that time is the same as it is now: You can’t.
“There has to be gross breach of contract to get out of the agreement, and I’ve seen no evidence of that,” Skipper said.
The city of Warner Robins, noting that its contract included language about utilization of the failed recycling plant, decided in 2000 that it would nullify its pact with the Crisp authority. City officials refused to continue payments over a period that extended to four years before a Houston County Superior Court jury ruled in favor of the authority in June of 2004.
Superior Court Judge Edward Lukemire wrote in his judgment of the case that Warner Robins must pay the authority $740,524 in back fees, $95,688 in interest and $125,103.86 in attorneys fees.
“The jury found and the judge ruled that the contracts issued by the authority did not make recycling a requirement, even though it was mentioned in the contract,” Sell said. “The city of Warner Robins ended up making a $1 million payment after the ruling.”
Crisp Solid Waste Management Authority Chairman Clark Henderson, a retired businessman, said representatives of the various governments should not be surprised by the content or language of the contracts.
“At the very beginning, after the contracts were presented, a judge called representatives of every government before him and asked them on the record if they were agreeing to the terms of the contract,” Henderson said. “Without such a statement by all of the governments involved, no bond company was going to be willing to put up almost $70 million.
“I don’t know why any of the governments would have a question about the contracts.”
The development of the Crisp Solid Waste Management Authority came about in the mid-1990s when the state of Georgia all but assured the various county governments that they would soon have to reduce landfill deposits by 25 percent. To help area governments prepare, a group in Crisp County came up with a plan to form a collective through which smaller county and municipal governments would have their solid waste collected by an agent of the Crisp authority.
That agent, TransWaste Services, agreed to collect the waste in various area counties and deliver much of it, initially, to the recycling center built just south of Cordele. Within a year, though, that center became bogged down in debt. By 1999, a year after it opened, plant officials laid off hourly workers and started bringing in “free labor” from the women’s prison in Pulaski County as a cost-cutting measure.
A short while later the recycling plant shut down after suffering losses of more than $9 million. More of the garbage was diverted to the Crisp County landfill, where capacity soon dwindled to the point that expansion became necessary. The Crisp Commission raised property taxes to pay for rising costs.
Solid waste that is collected in the various counties and municipalities under contract with the authority are now taken to several drop-off sites and hauled from those sites to larger landfills in the region. Garbage collected in Lee County is taken to a drop-off site in Terrell County and taken from there to a landfill in Taylor County.
Ironically, Georgia officials, despite assurances that they would, decided not to impose the stricter standards on county landfills.
“In hindsight, it certainly would have benefited governments if they’d waited until the state imposed the new standards,” Massey said. “All of these agreements made based on speculation could have used a little ‘look before you leap.’ What must have seemed at the time the prudent thing to do turned into this one-sided, ironclad contract that we’re now chained to until the year 2022.
“What’s sad is that because of this agreement, we helped fund a recycling facility that’s been sitting empty for years. You want to talk about a white elephant; that thing became a pig in a poke.”
Crisp Solid Waste Management officials, meanwhile, are trying to sell the recycling facility. Henderson confirmed that a potential buyer is looking at the facility, and he told the Cordele Dispatch that earnest money has been offered.
“We’re still the owner of that property,” Henderson said in a phone interview. “(Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp.) of New York is the lienholder on the property because they insured the bonds, and we’re working with them to try and find a suitable buyer. But I can guarantee you we’re not going to agree to any sale that’s not in the best interest of the taxpayers of Crisp County.”
Some had speculated that a clause in several of the contracts signed by member governments offered an opt-out clause. The city of Rochelle’s contract, for instance, contains a clause that says, in part, “The participant may terminate this agreement on one year’s written notice at any time after the indebtedness incurred in the construction of the waste processing facility has been fully paid.”
Sell laughed when asked about that clause and its current application to the authority.
“Oh, you can be assured the indebtedness has not been paid,” he said. “The bond insurer (Assured Guaranty) has taken control of the debt on the bonds because they’re responsible for most of it, but that debt is at about $60 million right now. So, no, the debt is not close to being paid off.”
While he admits that he and attorneys for other governments that reached agreements with the Crisp Solid Waste Authority have met to talk about possible ways to get out of their contracts, Skipper said he can’t see it happening. He would not, though, offer an opinion on the impact it’s having on the county.
“Whether it’s a ‘good’ contract or ‘bad’ one is up to somebody else to decide,” the Lee county attorney said. “I don’t make those kinds of value judgments. From my own observations and research, though, the contract is legally binding.”
It will be interesting for Lee Countians to see just how that legally-binding agreement with the Crisp authority impacts its own garbage issues.