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Mayor wants bids on landfill operation

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City officials want the community to take a hard look at Rumpke of Indiana’s contract to operate the Bartholomew County Landfill, which comes up for renewal this year.

Mayor Kristen Brown urged the Bartholomew County Solid Waste Management District during its meeting Thursday to seek competitive bidders, to look for possible savings and to see if a countywide home and business recycling program could be funded through the landfill contract.

The contract expires at the end of this year and is for an amount that varies depending on the tonnage dumped at the landfill. It averages about $1.2 million a year.

The issue came up during a discussion of the purchase of a piece of equipment for the yard waste site. The board had budgeted money this year to purchase a track loader for the site. Jim Murray, director of the waste district, recommended buying the combination bulldozer/loader from MacAllister Machinery of Indianapolis for $268,000.

However, Brown and City Council member Frank Miller, who both serve on the waste district board, expressed concerns over the purchase. They wanted to know whether the yard waste site, which is operated by the district itself, could be contracted out to a private company or added as a component of the county’s contract with Rumpke.

They also were concerned about larger issues, such as the 15-year-old contract with Rumpke.

Brown said she was frustrated that she had not been presented with all of the financial information needed to understand how the waste district operates, where its money comes from and goes, and whether the contract with Rumpke was a good deal for the county.

She also said she was concerned that the district’s state mandate is to reduce the amount of trash going into the landfill. But because the district makes money off each load of trash that is dumped, it has an incentive to keep the number of loads high, Brown Said. The district charges a tipping fee, assessed against trucks that dump trash at the landfill.

Brown said she had suggested that tipping fees be raised to fund countywide, curbside recycling. However, if tipping fees increased, there is a chance that Rumpke and others could choose not to deposit their trash at the county landfill, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, Brown argued.

Murray conceded that the landfill tipping fees are a double-edged sword. If the fees get too high, Rumpke and others would dump their trash elsewhere, which would mean less money for the district. That money is used to fund educational efforts and other programs that encourage less use of the landfill.

The tipping fee is $27.50 per ton, and that price has not increased since it was instituted in 1999. By law, all of the trash dumped in the landfill must come from Bartholomew County.

Murray said he was preparing a complete financial breakdown for the waste district board’s February meeting and that he had planned to begin the contract negotiations in March.

Brown and Miller also took exception when the seven-member board decided to reappoint County Commissioner Carl Lienhoop as the board chairman. Brown said she wanted a chairman who would directly control the agenda, instead of letting the district staff make the choices. Brown nominated Miller for the position instead, but the bid failed, with only Brown and Miller voting in favor. Lienhoop was re-elected president with five votes. Miller was unanimously elected vice president.

Miller said he and the mayor, who have served on the board only since they took office 13 months ago, are trying to learn all they can about the operations of the district — information that longer-serving members likely already have learned.

“If we don’t ask questions, we don’t get down to the bottom line,” he said.

County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz, who also serves on the district board, said the county pays Rumpke of Indiana about $1.2 million a year. Rumpke is also the landfill’s largest customer and pays about $800,000 a year to the district in tipping fees, he said. The landfill’s second-largest customer is the city of Columbus, he added.

According to the annual financial report for the district, there was $3.5 million in revenues in 2012 and $3.2 million in expenses. The largest part of the income, about $2 million, came from tipping fees. The district had a cash balance of $4.3 million at the end of 2012.

Rumpke was first awarded the county contract to operate the landfill in 1991, and there were no other bidders, Murray said. The county sought bids again in 1998, and Rumpke was the only bidder, he said. The contract has remained largely the same since then, with it last being renewed in 2008, he said.

As long as the contract stays the same, the district can renew it without seeking other bidders, Lienhoop said.

“We have chosen to do that, partially from fear that if we go out for bids, we may, in fact, have a huge cost increase,” Lienhoop said.

Brown said she would like to see the request for bids written in such a way that multiple bidders take part in the process.

The board voted 4-3 to approve the equipment purchase, with Brown, Miller and County Council member Chris Ogle voting against it.

The countywide waste management district is supported by a property tax levy of 2.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to the county auditor’s office. When the district was established in the early 1990s, the levy was 18 cents per $100 of assessed value. The largest portion of the assessed value in the county lies within Columbus city boundaries.

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