VernonReporter

City of Viroqua agrees to send its waste to Vernon County landfill, county board to vote on closing or expanding the facility on October 19

VIROQUA, Wis. – The Vernon County Board of Supervisors has an important vote coming up on Oct. 19 on whether or not to close or expand the county-run landfill it has owned and operated since 1993.

Vernon county has been wrestling with the question for years, but that decision may have gotten a little bit easier with a unanimous vote by the Viroqua City Council earlier this month to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that says the city agrees to send all of its waste to the local Vernon County facility. Following a presentation by Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn, the Viroqua City Council voted unanimously to send their waste to the Vernon County landfill for one year, with an option to extend the MOU to three years.

With City of Viroqua now on board, Sanborn has agreements in place with the majority of cities, villages, and towns to haul their waste to the county facility.

To understand why that is significant we have to go back and take a look at some recent history of garbage and recycling services in Vernon County.

According to Sanborn, the Vernon County Solid Waste and Recycling facility will be completely full in about a year and a half. That is not a surprise to Sanborn, or the Vernon County Board of Supervisors, they have been discussing the possible closure or expansion of the landfill since the spring of 2019. Expanding a landfill to add more air space needs to be approved by the State Department of Natural Resources. That process takes about five years to complete. Sanborn got approval from her home committee, the Infrastructure Committee (formerly the Solid Waste Committee) to begin that process by hiring an engineering firm to do an expansion feasibility study. The county hired the engineering company Short, Elliot and Hendrickson (SEH) in 2019 to do that study. The 2,368 page study was just completed and sent to the DNR on September 11. Total cost to conduct that study came in at around $385,000.

The county board of supervisors will take a final vote on whether to close or expand the landfill at the regular monthly meeting on October 19.

Numerous county committees, and the full board of supervisors, have talked about the landfill issue since that study was commissioned, but three key meetings held over the last two months summarize the arguments for and against expansion.

Those meetings included:

Some history on the landfill

The Vernon County Solid Waste and Recycling facility was built on 160 acres in the Viroqua Township in the early 90’s at the request of the municipalities after the DNR mandated the closure of the smaller unlined “dumps.” The idea was to consolidate disposal efforts across the county and help shelter Vernon County from liability by having control over where the county waste goes. The actual site used for waste disposal is currently about 9.6 acres. The facility operates as an “enterprise” fund, in other words, it is self funded by tipping fees and other sources of revenue and uses no tax levy money to operate.

Vernon County made the choice then that it would own its own facility to limit liability by building the facility over and above DNR standards, and that the county would have control over the waste stream of residents inside the county. The county intentionally purchased more land than was needed to ensure room for expansion and to create and large buffer between the facility and its neighbors.

When the county first opened the facility it operated under solid waste hauling ordinance 54-1(a), which states “No state licensed waste hauler shall collect or transport solid waste within Vernon County without a solid waste hauler’s license issued by Vernon County.” In the license the hauler was required to obtain it stated all Vernon County waste must be brought to the Vernon County landfill. That ensured Vernon County waste stayed in Vernon County and went to the local facility.

In 2018 some of the haulers in the county challenged that ordinance and county corporation counsel advised the county that the ordinance may not be enforceable. According to Sanborn, at the advice or corporation counsel the county established ordinance 54-2 solid waste flow control ordinance that references State Statute 287 that Sanborn argued at the time, did not apply to Vernon County.

Following that change the counties largest hauler at that time, Southwest Sanitation, built a transfer station and began hauling a portion of their waste out of the county. That caused a fairly substantial operating deficit for the county. In reposnse the county solid waste committee decided to negotiate individual contracts and tipping fees with each hauler in an effort to entice more volume to come to the facility. Southwest Sanitation saw a tipping fee reduction from $60 a ton to $49 a ton, and in return pledged to haul 90 percent of its waste to the Vernon County facility. Southwest was recently purchased by GFL Environmental Inc , a waste management company based in Toronto, Canada.

GFL has pledged to honor the SouthWest contract to haul waste they collect locally to the Vernon County facility, but has said that when that hauling agreement ends at the end of 2023, it intends to haul its waste to a landfill that GFL owns and operates in Eau Claire. GFL’s hauler agreements for 2022 pledged to haul 12,000 tons to the Vernon County facility and 11,000 tons in 2023.

With the prospect of the Vernon County facility losing a large portion of its volume necessary to remain solvent, Sanborn set out to strike agreements directly with local units of government to direct their waste to the county facility. Sanborn met individually with nearly every township, village and city to work out Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). The MOUs stated that each unit of government agreed to send their waste to the county facility, regardless of who the hauler is. In return Vernon County Solid Waste will give the communities a per ton tipping fee rebate based on volume.

Sanborn said the uncertainty about the volume the county landfill will receive moving forward has made budgeting difficult. In her presentations to her committee, and local units of government, Sanborn has laid out a number of scenarios that range from worst case scenario (zero volume from GFL) to best case scenario where a majority of cities, towns and villages pledge to haul their waste to the county.

The first table below was presented to the Infrastructure Committee earlier this year. Some of the figures were updated in the second table that was presented to the County Board on September 21. The estimates start with last years volume (on the left) that includes the GFL waste, and totals over 17,000 tons in 2022. From there Sanborn lays out worst case (only collecting from non-GFL sources) all the way to gaining back most of that volume through MOUs at 14,000 tons. At full volume the facility generated over $1 million in revenue. The revenue generated under the other scenarios ranges from a worst case of $533,259 to $866,656 at the high end.

As Sanborn began securing MOUs, GFL’s attorneys sent letters to the County Solid Waste Department, the members of Infrastructure Committee and other county officials, including the county attorney, stating that Sanborn’s attempts to make agreements with local units of government (MOUs) to send their waste to the county facility amounts to an attempt to implement flow control. The letters state that the “back door” efforts to implement flow control are “potentially unlawful”.

Gail Frie was the County Solid Waste Administrator when the landfill was originally sited and was instrumental in its establishment. Frie ran the Vernon County facility from 1993 until 2008 and went on to run the Monroe County Solid Waste facility until 2020. Frie has spoken out in favor of the expansion at a number of meetings including at the Vernon County Board of Supervisors meeting and the Viroqua City Council meeting. You can read a previous opinion letter he sent to us here.

At another County Infrastructure Committee meeting on October 10, Frie challenged the legal basis for not enforcing flow control and gave a history of how the county ended up in the position it is in now.

“I just find it very funny all the money the county is spending on legal fees,” said Frie. “We had a hauling ordinance and a hauling agreement that was in place for 30 years that directed waste to our landfill. Then your legal staff convinced you that a new ordinance was needed to follow Wisconsin Statute 287.”

Frie said he and current Solid Waste Administrator Sandborn consulted with the DNR and reached the conclusion that statute 287 really did not pertain to landfills.

“Now you have an ordinance that follows 287 that basically pretty much mimics what I had in place 30 years ago,” said Frie. “Then recently, the hauling agreement, that legally should follow the ordinance which is on the books, was changed to remove the words directing the waste to the landfill, and this was the advice of your legal counsel. Because that happened, this makes a rebate program necessary that says the same thing that is in your ordinance, adopted and written by your attorney. And now I just read a letter this morning she sent out, just confusing everything in an attempt to scare the committee that the ordinance on the books that they wrote is not legal. This to me just sounds like a conspiracy to stall the landfill long enough so that they won’t be able to expand.”

The Infrastructure Committee was scheduled go into closed session on Tuesday, October 11 to discuss the proposed hauler rebate program under an open meetings exception. Since the county’s attorney was not available for the meeting, the committee decided to postpone that issue and will hold a special meeting just to discuss that issue on Tuesday October 17 at 6:00 p.m.

The agenda item states:

Hauler rebate agreement. The Chair may entertain a motion to go into closed session
pursuant to Wisconsin Statutes 19.85 (1) (g) Conferring with legal counsel for the
governmental body who is rendering oral or written advice concerning strategy to be
adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become
involved. The closed session is by majority vote, showing by roll call the vote of each
member unless said vote is unanimous. No action shall be taken in closed session. The
body will reconvene in open session.

The meetings:

Vernon County Infrastructure Committee meeting 9-12-23

Vernon County Infrastructure Committee meeting 9-12-23

The discussion that took place at the Infrastructure Committee on September 12 highlights the differences of opinion about the future of the landfill. The first part of the discussion revolved around the solid waste budget that shows a deficit of about $196,00 for the year, in large part due to uncertain volumes that have fluctuated with the uncertainty over closure and the added cost of the feasibility study that will be paid for with future revenue from the expansion.

Sanborn said she was approved for a $300,000 loan from the county for the feasibility study but has not used the loan and has paid for the study with her operating budget. Sanborn said she has also paid more than usual into the closure fund, a fund that sets aside money for long-term care and closure of the facility once it is closed. Sanborn said those payments were increased to keep up with inflation and the fund was recently moved to higher yielding accounts which will lower the amount needed in the future.

“All the the expenses for the feasibility study are through my department budget,” said Sanborn. “They’ve all been paid for through my department instead of a loan or some other, outside of my department financials. It’s all been allocated and paid for through my budget. So that’s additional expenses above just operating. So that’s why our expenses are so high because the majority of that is the feasibility study and then the additional long-term care enclosure payment that was made.”

The committee then heard from the engineer Brian Kent with Short, Eliot and Hendrickson that wrote the feasibility study for the expansion. Kent said their investigation of the site and the report concluded that the proposed expansion was environmentally feasible.

“Once the DNR has it (the report) in hand and once they have the invoice paid for the feasibility review they have 65 days to issue a notice of completeness,” said Kent “At that point once the DNR determines it to be complete, then they have 60 days to approve it. Now there’s a couple other things that go in there, but in my 30 years I’ve never seen one go through the DNR without a notice of incompleteness, they want some additional information, every time that happens that pauses that 65-day review until they have the information that they need. Once they get that notice for completion then they post a public notice to be published. A notice to folks saying: hey, you have 30 days to provide comments.”

Sanborn and Kent said the original landfill design went above and beyond the DNR design standards and the new expansion will as well.

“The current landfill was originally designed, had one of the first, where the leachate was pumped up and over the berm instead of going directly through the initial berm,” said Sanborn. “Within the landfill it also has a five foot clay liner, which code requires four. We have an 18 inch filter sand protective layer over the 60 mil liner when 12 inches is required. So the current landfill was built above spec and I believe we continued that was continued in the design of the expansion.”

Kent said the new cells will also have a seven percent grade at the bottom instead of the required one percent grade so the leachate is collected faster. All the water collected at the bottom is trucked to treatment facility. There are also test wells at numerous locations throughout the site.

Some of the members of the town of Viroqua committee that is negotiating the “town host” agreement were at the Infrastructure Committee meting. That agreement includes items like hours of operation, truck routes, order and litter control. Ann Jo Doerr is a neighbor to the landfill and chairs the committee along Kelvin Rodolfo, Kathleen Crittenden and Rice Spann. Rodolfo is a retired geologist and along with Doerr expressed concerns about the facility on a number of issues. Rodolfo said the karst geology of the region is particularly unstable is known for sinkholes and underground caverns. Rodolfo said stiudies have shown contaminates that get into the water table can travel much farther and faster that previously thought and a leak in the area could impact water table that run under the whole area.

Supervisor Kyle Semke asked Kent if the report came to a conclusion as to whether there was a need for the expansion.

“Yes,” said Kent.

“Based on?” asked Semke.

“Based on the volume within the region,” said Kent.

“Because we don’t have anywhere else to go with it?” asked Semke.

“A lot of the bigger facilities look at it saying – hey, we’re out looking to get as much as we possibly can,” said Kent. “Right? So what that need does is determine the size of the expansion you can get. So, if you have an area that has a waste disposal need, which there is a need, every place you can go there’s garbage, that exercise is more to determine how big an expansion would be. In this case is this expansion is 427,000 yards.”

“So it environmentally feasible,” said Semke. “But the second half of this is, we decide if it’s economically feasible to do it.”

Supervisor Charles Jacobson

Supervisor Charles Jacobson said the committee and board were struggling with the decision because of the possibility that GFL could be hauling an unknown volume out of the county and that could mean they would not be collecting the same volumes as 2022.

“That’s not necessarily a consideration because what we look at is the overall need within the state,” said Kent. “And there’s a shortage of volume within the state to handle everybody as well as the local volume that could potentially happen because we focused in on Vernon County to determine per capita how much volume would be generated.”

“I just wanted to add that my 2024 budget was based on zero volume from GFL,” said Sanborn.

At the October 10 Infrastructure Committee meeting the committee adopted Sanborn’s budget that included a projected volume of 7,200 tons of waste. The committee rejected two other budgets with lower and higher volume projections.

When asked if there were numbers on how much waste was coming from outside the county Sanborn said it was very difficult to know because she asked haulers to track and report that on weight tickets but some haulers have refused to comply.

“I think it was 2018 on the bottoms of the tickets, it says Vernon County, and it says non-Vernon County,” said Sanborn. “And that was supposed to be circled so we’d at least have a general Vernon County or non-Vernon County, and I could not get compliance. I had drivers tell me they didn’t need to do that. This last round, I’m still having issues with compliance and I put this as a requirement not a request on the door. It’s on the scale computer, and I still have drivers that aren’t putting things on tickets like I ask.”

When asked about allowing waste in from other counties Sanborn said the change was made at the request of the haulers.

“The political boundary, the county boundary was opened sometime during 2018 during the contract negotiations at a request of the haulers,” said Sanborn. “Because we were seeing only Vernon County garbage and it was brought up that we were making liars of them because they were bringing stuff from out of county. So that was opened up in 2018 at the request of the haulers.”

“The political boundary, the county boundary was opened sometime during 2018 during the contract negotiations at a request of the haulers. Because we were seeing only Vernon County garbage and it was brought up that we were making liars of them because they were bringing stuff from out of county. So that was opened up in 2018 at the request of the haulers.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

As the meeting moved to the discussion of next year’s budget projections some committee members questioned projections of per capita garbage generation. Sanborn was estimating volumes based in local governments that already signed MOU’s agreeing to send their waste to Vernon County and their population.

“We have a new hauler operating in our area that is gaining momentum,” said Sanborn. “We have other haulers coming into our area that are willing to work with us. Those are the outlying things that I can’t quantify for you right now because they’re happening as we are all sitting in this chair today.”

“I did ask Stacie (Sanborn) to come back and present a new budget to me that pulled out any tonnage from GFL,” said Administrative Coordinator Cassie Hanan. “So that when we came to committee level to discuss it that we have an estimation for you. That’s all it is is an estimation because the decision has not been made as far as expansion or closure. Obviously this budget one way or another, it’s going to change. But where we’re sitting right now with the information that we have it’s a conservative estimate as far as tonnage goes from those municipalities that we have signed the MOU.”

“The thing that gets me is I have a county chair and I have a town seat and in our township we’re actually spending more,” said Semke. “And then going into this budget if things don’t work out right and everything else, it’s actually going to cost us more. When before it was costing us a lot less. That’s the problem I have because that MOU we signed and it cost us more to sign it, and then if things don’t work out here it’s going to cost us more yet. And we don’t know how much that is because nobody knows nothin. And then what do we do? That’s what upsets me with this, nobody knows nothin.”

“I guess I look at this, I always think that government entities should not be in competition with private entities,” said Supervisor Martha Olson.

“Martha why did you haul your garage (demolition waste) to our landfill instead of someplace else?” asked Goede.

“Obviously, because I am a resident here and I can take it there and I enjoy having it open,” said Olson “But I have to look at the full picture of my constituents. What they want and the cost. I’ll have to pay the cost just like everyone else if we close, but how do I know that it’s going to not be the same price or even less going with GFL or someone else?”

“Obviously, because I am a resident here and I can take it there and I enjoy having it open, but I have to look at the full picture of my constituents. What they want and the cost. I’ll have to pay the cost just like everyone else if we close, but how do I know that it’s going to not be the same price or even less going with GFL or someone else?”

Supervisor Martha Olson

“Looking at it from an economic development standpoint we have a $1.2 million dollar budget,” said County Board Chair Goede. “What would any county do or any economic development committee do to bring in a $1.2 million dollar business into their into their vicinity? Because if we don’t have our $1.2 million dollar business, if you want to look at it as a business, if we don’t have this $1.2 million dollar business in our township, we might as well take 1.2 million dollars, put in an envelope, and send it out of the county. There goes your jobs. There goes the whole infrastructure for it.”

“Why don’t you pick that $1.2 million then support a business within the county?” asked Semke.

“Looking at it from an economic development standpoint, we have a $1.2 million dollar budget. What would any county do or any economic development committee do to bring in a $1.2 million dollar business into their into their vicinity? Because if we don’t have our $1.2 million dollar business, if you want to look at it as a business, if we don’t have this $1.2 million dollar business in our township, we might as well take 1.2 million dollars, put in an envelope, and send it out of the county. There goes your jobs. There goes the whole infrastructure for it.”

County Board Chair Lorn Goede

“We don’t have the $1.2 million we’ve shipped it out,” said Goede. “It’s gone. We’re no longer supporting our local businessmen fixing our trucks. We don’t have our employees out there. We don’t have spring and fall cleanups. We have no place to bring our refrigerators.”

Goede said there are a large number of constituents that do want the facility but are not as vocal now.

“Martha has brought up the fact that we have to do what our constituents want,” said Goede. “You bring up closing this place. You’re going to get tarred and feathered is all I’m saying.”

Martha has brought up the fact that we have to do what our constituents want. You bring up closing this place. You’re going to get tarred and feathered is all I’m saying.

County Board Chair Lorn Goede

“Well I’m talking about the town of Viroqua,” said Olson.

“Outside the town of Viroqua,” said Goede. “I’ve got two emails from citizens from the town of Viroqua that want to know what’s going on? What can they start doing to bring the truth to the people.”

“Well right,” said Semke. “Like I said, my township by signing that MOU….”

County Board Chair Lorn Goede

“By signing that MOU you guaranteed that you’re going to be paying five dollars a ton more instead of $15 a ton more in a year and a half,” said Goede. “You bought yourself a really good insurance policy is what you did.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Semke. “I don’t I don’t know about that. How can you say that because we would have got a three-year contract for less money. It’ll cost us less for three years.”

“And then?” asked Goede.

“You go through the process of rebidding again,” said Semke.

“Rebidding with no competition?” asked Goede.

“Well I don’t know I think competition has been created,” said Semke.

Semke later, again questioned the estimated tonnage used for budget projections and if costs would rise in the future.

Supervisor Kyle Semke

Olson raised the issue of the Town of Viroqua objections to the expansion and whether they have a say in the approval since the landfill is located in that township. Under state regulations the host township has some say in operational things but not in the actual expansion. Sanborn has been meeting with town representatives to work through things like odor, and litter control. If the county and the town cannot come to an agreement on those items the agreement would go to arbitration.

“The problem I have with the MOUs is that those MOUs and what Stacie pitched to them for costs of tonnage, there is no reflection of the expansion or anything in there,” said Semke. “So those that signed an MOU based on, let’s say if it was a little bit of a difference, and they felt it was good for them to sign and support that MOU, that down the road they have no idea, we have no idea, of what it’s going to cost everyone to do this. That’s the problem and now they’ve all signed on.”

“But you if you wouldn’t have signed it you had every every confidence that it was going to stay that way forever?” Asked Goede. “And be cheaper? Without any insurance?”

“I’m not. I’m not saying that,” said Semke.

“I’m asking Kyle, why are you ripping on Vernon County for not having all the definite answers when no one else has any definite answers?” asked Goede.

“No, I just feel that if we have to substantially increase the amount that it’s going to take for those people to get rid of the garbage, increasing the tipping fee, Vernon county is going to get one big black eye,” said Semke.

No, I just feel that if we have to substantially increase the amount that it’s going to take for those people to get rid of the garbage, increasing the tipping fee, Vernon county is going to get one big black eye.

Supervisor Kyle Semke

Sanborn clarified that the costs projected in the MOUs did include the cost of expansion.

“I put together volume projections per your requests,” said Sanborn. “We submitted those earlier and presented those to you guys showing worst case you know middle of the road case, and that was kind of why we started doing the MOUs, trying to guarantee volume so we could establish pricing. So we did that, but now we got to hit the volume mark to get to those numbers and that did include the cost of construction.”

Sanborn has also pointed out that the air space that is created by the expansion will have a value of $20 million in revenue over 15 years based on current tipping fees.

Vernon County Board of Supervisors meeting 9-21-23

Public comment at the Vernon County Board of Supervisors Meeting

At the beginning of county meetings there is a period for public comment where anyone can speak on an issue on the agenda. At the September County Board of Supervisors meeting, former Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Gail Frie, who helped site and construct the original landfill, gave his input on the debate. Frie later ran the Monroe County Solid Waste facility until his retirement in 2020. He currently works part-time at the Vernon County landfill. Frie addressed many of the issues raised by county board members at the September 12 Infrastructure Committee meeting with a statement he read to the board.

Two other speakers gave comments in support of the landfill expansion. Todd Teed is a Patrolman with the town of Forest and said the their township is in favor of the expansion.

“I don’t know why you want close something that is close and self-supporting,” said Teed. “Being at the mercy of a big company that can say – hey we don’t want to take your garbage anymore – doesn’t make sense to me at all.”

Dennis Rauls is a Supervisor with the town of Union.

“I know that our cost would probably double if we don’t have this landfill,” said Rauls. “I do run the dump for our township, so I don’t know what I would do with all the other stuff that you guys take. Batteries, tires, light bulbs, fuel cans, you name it. If we lose control of ourselves I certainly do not want to beg to a company to accommodate the county needs of our people.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn’s presentation to the Vernon County Board of Supervisor’s on 9-21-23

Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn gave the board a presentation on the landfill including a detailed report on the progress of getting municipalities on board with MOUs and projected financial plan to keep the facility in operation. Sanborn also went through all the reasons why it is in the best interest of Vernon County taxpayers to keep the facility open.

To address the environmental concerns, Sanborn presented the 2,368 page environmental feasibility report from their engineer and the process they have had to follow to ensure the expansion would be safe.

“That report includes general facility and land use information, geology and hydro-geology investigation, waste and leachate characteristics, the design and capacity of the proposed expansion, an environmental review, the need and design capacity analysis,” said Sanborn. “And an evaluation of alternatives to land disposal. SCH (Short, Elliot, Hendrickson) has been working on that report for over three years now. They have had seven different professional engineers hydro-geologists and geologists, working and compiling the data that is in that report. Now that it’s completed and submitted to the DNR, that report will now be reviewed by 10 different departments within the Department of Natural Resources. So, I assure you folks as I stand up here that the many people that are professional hydro-geologists, engineers, geologists that have worked on, or will be reviewing, that report would not allow the county to move forward with an expansion, or even construct a landfill in the first place, out on the landfill property if there was an unmitigated environmental risk to our groundwater or air quality.”

“Now that it’s completed and submitted to the DNR, that report will now be reviewed by 10 different departments within the Department of Natural Resources. So, I assure you folks as I stand up here that the many people that are professional hydro-geologists, engineers, geologists that have worked on, or will be reviewing that report would not allow the county to move forward with an expansion, or even construct a landfill in the first place, out on the landfill property if there was an unmitigated environmental risk to our groundwater or air quality.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

Sanborn said the process to get the expansion approved and built means the county needs to make a decision.

“SCH is confident that Vernon County will eventually receive a notice of completeness from the Wisconsin DNR to proceed with the landfill expansion,” said Sanborn “So the final decision on expanding the Vernon County landfill needs to be made by you folks sitting in this room. This decision needs to be made soon. Our engineering firm, with the amount of airspace that we have left, is pressuring that we need to know whether we are expanding or not. There’s many other things that we need to move forward with before we are able to put a shovel in the ground for the construction. Right now we have roughly a year and a half of airspace remaining.”

Sanborn laid out some of the potential consequences of closing the facility, including upset constituents.

“There are some folks out there that would love nothing more than to see you guys close the doors out at that landfill,” said Sanborn “Some of those folks are pretty vocal. I’m sure you’ve heard them. However, there are over 30,000 other residents of Vernon County that every one of them voted you guys into office, and those folks, most of those people, have no clue this is even up for a discussion. They’re starting to learn however. Most of those people have no clue where their garbage goes, and some of them don’t even care as long as it goes. What they do care about is how much it costs them. This population may not be vocal right now, but when the disposal costs are becoming too high, and and we have closed the local landfill, and then they find out they’re having to pay higher prices because that stuff has to be transferred to a different landfill, they’re gonna start talking.”

“….most of those people, have no clue this is even up for a discussion. They’re starting to learn however, most of those people have no clue where their garbage goes, and some of them don’t even care as long as it goes. What they do care about is how much it costs them. This population may not be vocal right now, but when the disposal costs are becoming too high, and and we have closed the local landfill, and then they find out they’re having to pay higher prices because that stuff has to be transferred to a different landfill, they’re gonna start talking.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

Sanborn said there will likely be other issues if the county facility closes. Things like residents dumping garbage in ditches and burning garbage. Sanborn said the highway department employees will end up having to pick up that waste and instead of bringing it to the local landfill, will have to pay to have it hauled out of county.

“DNR closed all the municipal landfills they wanted to centralize everything and then create the NR 500 landfills that we currently have today,” said Sanborn “Two was to shield municipalities from the liability of waste which is still a thing. It’s just not as common. We’re not having as many problems with landfill issues because of the way they are engineered, and constructed, and reviewed. And then three was to have local control of disposal and costs. Having our own landfill is a pricing stabilizer. Without it we’re leaving our residents in the municipalities at the mercy of someone else’s profit margins.”

“Having our own landfill is a pricing stabilizer. Without it we’re leaving our residents in the municipalities at the mercy of someone else’s profit margins.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

Sanborn said the landfill has always paid for itself and not raised prices or used tax levy money to operate.

“The Vernon County landfill has only had one rate increase in 30 years of operation,” said Sanborn. “And that was in 2008 and due to the rising DNR fees. Over the last five years we’ve given an eight to an eleven dollar per ton price break to the haulers in an effort to try to keep prices down, try to keep everyone happy. Unfortunately, most of that price break wasn’t passed to the residents or the municipalities, it went to profit margin. So, I ask you guys as you look at this expansion and information presented to you, that you please look at the entire picture not just the grim portrait of what’s being portrayed for you by people that stand to really profit from the closure of this.”

Sanborn said it will be much harder to get rid of many items if the local facility is not there. The Vernon County facility puts out dumpsters for deer carcass collection, collects hazardous wastes, paints and chemicals that might get dumped down a drain if they are harder to dispose of. The landfill has conducted pickup days for appliances and electronics that have resulted in a two hour line of cars.

Sanborn again pointed out that the expansion will be constructed above DNR standards, and the value of the airspace over the 15 year life of the expansion is worth about $20 million. Sanborn also said the economic impact of facility on the local economy is important. The facility has a $1.1 million budget about half of which stays local and closing would mean a loss of about $8.25 million over 15 years.

Sanborn then addressed the issue of attracting enough volume to remain viable.

“Vernon County generates more than enough garbage to sustain our landfill for another 15 years,” said Sanborn. “Based on the 2018 EPA state waste generation rate of 4.9 pounds per person per day, Vernon County would generate an estimated 27,645 ton a year. Historically Vernon County has taken in over 15,000 tons of waste since 2018… The county, the municipalities, and the residents need to understand the value of having this facility here and we all need to work together.”

Sanborn said she continues signing up municipalities with MOUs.

“Right now as I’m standing up here today I have signed uh with 17 of the 21 towns,” said Sanborn “We have five of the nine villages, the city of Westby, this covers 61 percent of Vernon County’s population.” (The City of Viroqua has also subsequently also signed an MOU)

Sanborn pointed out that the market is shifting drastically due to the potential change in haulers and the offer of a per ton rebate program, potentially attracting other haulers to service the area. Sanborn said they have signed two new hauling agreements with haulers in the last month, one from La Crosse and one from Tomah.

“However if the landfill closes that competition is going to disappear,” said Sanborn “Those folks won’t be able to compete in our market with a company that has their own disposal option without having to transfer. Any hauler without a transfer station will have to transfer all the Vernon County’s garbage to either La Crosse or Monroe County, if they will accept it. Because La Crosse and Monroe County are sited for volume that they’ve already planned for.”

Sandborn then presented the picture of landfill volumes in the state and the region to illustrate how few options are available, or will be available in the future.

“Wisconsin only has so much permitted airspace,” said Sanborn. “Looking at this map our landfill down here on the left hand side in that little cluster of three is one of 28 active landfills in the state of Wisconsin. Two of those are already planning closure which reduces it down to 26. And now if we reduce, if we close our landfill, that leaves 25 disposal options landfills in the state of Wisconsin for the entire population of Wisconsin’s waste, and every single person’s generating garbage. We are one of 13 municipally owned landfills. So that’s about half of the landfills in the state. It’s not like we’re this big super large oddity. Half the landfills in the state are owned by a municipality. We are one of nine in the west half of the state. If you cut the state of Wisconsin in half there’s only nine landfills on the West Side. Everything is more focused towards Milwaukee and Green Bay. So now we’re transferring and the one that’s way up in the tippy top, that’s one of the landfills that will be closing so that’ll reduce it down to eight landfills on the west half of the state for disposal. At some point airspace is going to become very costly. And when demand increases and supply decreases, what are we gonna do with all this stuff? It’s got to go somewhere, or it’s gonna end up in the back 40 being burned, on the road ditches, or on our highway.”

“At some point airspace is going to become very costly. And when demand increases and supply decreases, what are we gonna do with all this stuff? It’s got to go somewhere, or it’s gonna end up in the back 40 being burned, on the road ditches, or on our highway.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

“This entire decision in one form or another will impact every single Vernon County resident,” said Sanborn. “Now and in the future. Because every one of us produces garbage, and unfortunately the time has come where this decision needs to be made. We’re running out of time. The cost of disposal of that garbage shouldn’t be a pass-through cost for the haulers operating in our area. So if we charge $60 to $100 a ton, that should have zero impact on the cost of trucking. The reason this is being called to question is because when the disposal option is hours away and privately owned they can play by different rules. You folks all sitting in here know that municipal entities have to operate differently than businesses entities do. We have to be more transparent. Private businesses don’t have to be fair and give the same pricing to everybody. They can pick and choose. Not having that fair transparent cost of disposal leaves a lot of wiggle room for profit on both the trucking side, and the disposal side. Instead of allowing our area to be bullied and scared into closing our landfill because a private business is trying to hold our waste stream hostage, I think we need to stand up and expand it, and allow it to be run like a business, allowing for an increased tipping fee at our facility, so we have extra money to do more waste reduction efforts. More recycling programs. Expand the services that we provide to our county, our municipalities and our residents. Let’s stand up, and be a positive member in the community instead of a dirty landfill that nobody wants. We could do so much more for the county and the municipalities, and the residents. But this constant battle over volume has done nothing but hurt our market and monopolized us. There is plenty of garbage out there looking at the lack of disposal options across the state. There’s no doubt in my mind we will see enough garbage to financially sustain an expansion, but we’ve got to be willing to fight for it.”

Instead of allowing our area to be bullied and scared into closing our landfill because a private business is trying to hold our waste stream hostage, I think we need to stand up and expand it and allow it to be run like a business allowing for an increased tipping fee at our facility, so we have extra money to do more waste reduction efforts, more recycling programs, expand the services that we provide to our county, our municipalities and our residents let’s stand up and be a positive member in the community instead of a dirty landfill that nobody wants we could do so much more for the county and the municipalities, and the residents. But this constant battle over volume has done nothing but hurt our market and monopolized us. There is plenty of garbage out there looking at the lack of disposal options across the state. There’s no doubt in my mind we will see enough garbage to financially sustain an expansion, but we’ve got to be willing to fight for it.

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

Sanborn said it is not likely volume is going to be an issue. She already has had inquiries from surrounding counties about the potential of using the Vernon County facility because they have limited options for disposal of certain items. Sanborn said Vernon County waste is the first priority, but we can control our waste and not be in the difficult position some other areas are in.

“If we wait much longer the current landfill is going to be full before we’re able to construct a new phase,” said Sanborn. “And then we’re going to be sitting here. If you choose not to expand the landfill, then at least we will all know where the county stands, what future operations will look like instead of this limbo guessing game that we’re all sitting in here.”

Viroqua City Council meeting 9-26-23

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn presentation to the Viroqua City Council

Former Solid Waste Administrator Gail Frie again gave a statement to the Viroqua City Council.

Sanborn again gave hre presentation the Viroqua City Council that was similar the information presented to the County Board but also included specific information regarding waste hauling for the city. Viroqua is in the process getting proposals for waste pickup in the city since its contract with GFL is expiring.

Sanborn offered more detail on the financial analysis in the feasibility report. According to that analysis:

If the landfill brought in 4,400 ton per year the tipping fee would be $107/ton

If the landfill brought in 10,000 ton per year the tipping fee would be $68.75/ton

If the landfill brought in 12,000 ton per year the tipping fee would be $63.80/ton

“So obtaining the 15,000 ton per year is break even and a little better than that,” said Sanborn. “So we’re already at the 9,450 for for guaranteed tonnage from the municipalities (already committed through MOUs) and with your guys’ help we will be able to reach a number that we can sustain reasonable tipping fees.”

Sanborn said the Vernon County tipping fees are right in line with other area facilities. According to Sanborn the Monroe County tipping fee is $62 and the La Crosse County tipping fee is $62 and the posted gate rate is $107.

“We’re a pricing stabilizer for our area,” said Sanborn. “If we’re not here, now the sky is the limit for what you’re going to pay for tipping fees because you can’t call Stacy at the landfill and ask what our tipping fee is, and keep people honest. You’re calling somewhere else that may not even disclose that information.”

City of Viroqua Alderperson Cyndy Hubbard

“I think you make some really good points you make a nice presentation,” said Alderperson Cyndy Hubbard. “I think local control is very important for pricing, for just how things are done. The opportunities we have to get rid of things twice a year like you mentioned, that’s big. I’ve done that couple three or four times. Recycling too is big. And you’re right if we don’t have a a economical way to get rid of stuff there are people that are just going to dump it on the side of the road, or way back where no one will find it. I think it’s important that we keep it the way”

City Administrator Nate Torres asked about recycling. Currently waste collection in the city includes commingled recycling. The Vernon County facility does not currently take co-mingled recycling but it does take sorted recyclable materials from the townships and the city of Westby.

“If we wanted to use the county’s recycling program could it remain co-mingled?” asked Torres.

Sanborn said there are number of potential options for recycling depending on what the city would choose to do. Sanborn said one option might to collect the recyclables at the curb and sort it at the lanfill or use a system like Westby uses that collects sorted materials and transport those to the landfill.

“Maybe it’s the bin at the curb instead of the 95 gallon tote full of stuff,” said Sanborn. “It would be easy for our staff to sort a bin instead of a 95 gallon cart. Or we switch to first week of the month with your garbage we’ll pick up cardboard and paper. Second week we’ll pick up glass and tin. Third week we’ll pick up um plastics. This is done effectively in the city of Westby. So we could definitely work with them to kind of see how they are collecting it and working on that. And and I think we could work together to to accomplish something like that. I would love to help recycle with you guys.”

Viroqua City Administrator Nate Torres

Sanborn said the city of Westby and La Farge have city employees collect their recycling.

Torres pointed out that the MOU does not require recycling to go to the Vernon County landfill, only waste, so if a hauler is chosen they could potentially haul their waste to the landfill and recycling somewhere else until the Vernon County facility is prepared to take it. Torres said it may be difficult to ask homeowners to switch from co-mingled now that they are used to it.

“I think a lot of people question whether it gets recycled anyway,” said Hubbarb. “They go really? Who’s kidding who? That’s what I hear a lot lot. So they might feel better knowing that we’re separating again.”

“Some may,” said Torres. “And some may just find it too tedious and not do it right.”

“I think there’s some history on that,” said Mayor Justin Running. “I think the county does a wonderful job of the programs they do, but I think there’s been, I think you see a marked increase in the number of participants in recycling when it’s co-mingled. But I agree with the quality of it. I know there’s some concern that they throw a greasy pizza box in their bin and now it just wrecked the whole truck.”

Running asked about the projection for tipping fees and if the numbers included the cost of the construction for the expansion.

Viroqua Mayor Justin Running

“That includes the $3 million of construction cost, the $300,000 plan of operations,” said Sanborn.

“With that rate, will that be guaranteed in any sort of contract?” asked Running. “What’s kind of the guarantee that the city can be assure that that’s the rate that they’ll continue to pay post expansion?”

Sanborn said the county currently has a contracted rate of $57.75 a ton and post expansion they will have a posted rate of $65 with a rebate program the rewards using the county facility. If a hauler signs a one year agreement they would get a one percent rebate. If you commit to a five year agreement you would get a nine percent rebate which would equal $60 per ton. Sanborn said they would increase the ability of the county to enforce policies because they would have the ability to withhold that rebate.

Sanborn addressed the likelihood of prices increasing.

“As far as a length, our department has only had one rate increase in 30 years,” said Sanborn. “I don’t have a profit margin to give to the county board. We operate pretty lean right now and we continue to operate so we’re not having to Jack rates.”

“And I don’t mean to put you on the spot but I think that’s that’s my biggest concern is is exposure financially, and if it expands, and say the city of Viroqua ends up for some reason participating, and it has to go on the tax role, the city residents will contribute to it whether they use it or not.”

Viroqua Mayor Justin Running

“I’m asking the questions because I know the margins are tight,” said Running. “I just don’t want to I’d hate to see the city enter into something that could potentially cost us more based on participation post expansion. And I don’t mean to put you on the spot but I think that’s that’s my biggest concern is is exposure financially, and if it expands, and say the city of Viroqua ends up for some reason participating, and it has to go on the tax role, the city residents will contribute to it whether they use it or not.”

“So looking at this MOU,” said Sanborn. “The reason the first term is only one year is because corporate counsel understood that we’re asking you guys to kind of take a bit of a leap of faith without knowing whether the landfill is going to expand, but in order to expand the landfill and have a local disposal option, I need to prove volume. And this is how we’re trying to prove that volume. Going forward, yeah, if the county expands, we don’t receive your garbage, well now you’re reducing my tonnage. Either tipping fees have to go up. or it’s going to be subsidized. However, if the landfill closes, it gets more expensive to haul this stuff hundreds of miles away. Your price is going to go up and you’re going to pay either way and you just won’t have any local control.”

“The reason the first term is only one year is because corporate counsel understood that we’re asking you guys to kind of take a bit of a leap of faith without knowing whether the landfill is going to expand, but in order to expand the landfill and have a local disposal option, I need to prove volume. And this is how we’re trying to prove that volume. Going forward, yeah, if the county expands, we don’t receive your garbage, well now you’re reducing my tonnage. Either tipping fees have to go up. or it’s going to be subsidized. However, if the landfill closes, it gets more expensive to haul this stuff hundreds of miles away. Your price is going to go up and you’re going to pay either way and you just won’t have any local control.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

“I think the other concern is with that one-year rate, if we do move forward and sign and then figure out it just doesn’t work, it puts the county in position where now they’ve committed to the landfill,” said Torres. “When we look at the slides and it shows that you need every bit of contributions from the municipalities, it seems like it’s kind of a razor thin margin that you’re operating on, and I’m wondering in the feasibility study they didn’t seem to speak to that at al. They sort of reiterated what you reiterated here is that, well we talk to everybody and we have them signed on, but if people start dropping out? I guess as the administrator that is mostly what concerns me is just the long-term confidence in, sort of, what you’ve created is like a consortium of municipalities. All buying into this. And what happens if the consortium breaks in three years. Right? And you’ve already committed to the landfill.”

Sanborn again said based on the municipalities that have already committed to using the facility. she is confident the volume will be there.

“I have no doubt again that we will be receiving enough volume because it’s going so expensive to transfer this stuff elsewhere,” said Sanborn. “I mean, if you guys sign up for the landfill right now and help guarantee volume, if everybody works together we’re going to be able to sustain the landfill. But it’s the municipalities that want to bow out and the municipalities that don’t, it’s all we’re worried about our cost, well, if we all stick together in this we’re going to be able to keep costs down. Because that’s the only way we’re going to have any control of it. Otherwise cost may go through the roof, and you won’t have anything to say about. It’s going to be, you’re going to have to pay it because it’s going to have to be transferred elsewhere. And you’re going to be paying somebody else’s landfill cost. Where you can’t go to my infrastructure meeting and speak to why am I paying this much per ton? What’s going on? You won’t have any say and you’re still going to be looking at an increased rate.”

Vernon County Alderperson Tanja Birke

Sanborn said there is demand outside to the county as well and the county could allow that waste to come to the facility if more volume was needed.

Alderperson Tanja Birke said she was confident in the future pricing because the facility is a not-for-profit.

“That’s a fairly important piece for me,” said Birke. “As far as anticipating the cost. It’s like, imagine if we had to buy our water from a private party. Or we had a private party running our sewer department.”

Former Vernon County Waste Administrator Gail Frie said the lack of confidence is mainly because decision makers have been indecisive.

“I would like to speak to the lack of confidence the lack of confidence is only because the board (Vernon County Board of Supervisors) hasn’t made up their mind yet. Once they make up their mind to expand the landfill, it’ll be just like Monroe County, before I retired I got a large expansion through. Everybody knew the county was going to approve it so at our public hearing we only had two people show up and they spoke in favor of the landfill. DNR was shocked, and you know everybody in Monroe County, the community supports the landfill. Once people know the landfill is there, and they own it, and it’s going to remain there, I guarantee you they will come aboard.”

Former Vernon County Waste Administrator Gail Frie

“I would like to speak to the lack of confidence the lack of confidence is only because the board (Vernon County Board of Supervisors) hasn’t made up their mind yet,” said Frie. “Once they make up their mind to expand the landfill it’ll be just like Monroe County, before I retired I got a large expansion through. Everybody knew the county was going to approve it. So at our public hearing we only had two people show up, and they spoke in favor of the landfill. DNR was shocked, and you know everybody in Monroe County, the community supports the landfill. Once people know the landfill is there, and they own it, and it’s going to remain there, I guarantee you they will come aboard.”

“Can you just reiterate why GFL isn’t interested in coming to a landfill that’s right down the road?” asked Torres. “I just I think that’s the biggest part that I’m struggling with is why it’s necessary for us to require this company to come to your landfill if it’s if it’s right in the back door.”

Former Southwest Sanitation owner and local manager for GFL Bill Meeks answered that question.

“It’s simply less expensive for us to haul,” said Meeks. “Even though it’s 100 miles to a landfill in Eau Claire, A regional landfill that has economies of scale. That just has a much lower tipping rate. Vernon County’s second to the smallest landfill in the state of Wisconsin. It lacks the economy’s of scale. So cost is the answer.”

Meeks said the tipping fee is about 50 percent less.

“So the Tipping fee may be 50 percent less but you still have to transport it there,” said Sanborn. And I also want to ask has the city of Viroqua, Southwest built their transfer station 2020 transferring waste out of County, have you guys seen a rate reduction due to their decrease?”

City officials seemed to indicate the city rate for collection has not been reduced but Mayor Running pointed out that the city had a contract with Southwest.

“I just want to say,” said Sanborn. “So to date because you guys were contracted that cost savings has been pure profit.”

“I’ll just mention that collection costs represents more than 80 percent of the total cost for solid waste management,” said Meeks. “Less than 20 percent is actually disposal.”

Torres asked about the potential exposure to lawsuits over the flow control issue given the letters from attorneys representing GFL.

Sanborn said the the county attorney reviewed the MOU that is based on an MOU used in Marathon County.

“You guys have the right to direct your waste to wherever you want because you guys are liable for it. So essentially you’re directing that liability to the Vernon County landfill, which is locally owned. And we have a long-term care process for that if there is any issues with the landfill. Otherwise you are now combining your garbage with a mega-landfill industrial waste and whatever else they choose to place in there. Because of that liability you guys have that ability to direct your waste to wherever you want via your contracting. Corporate counsel would not have allowed me to bring this to you guys if it was a concern of violation of flow control.”

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn

“You guys have the right to direct your waste to wherever you want because you guys are liable for it,” said Sanborn “So essentially you’re directing that liability to the Vernon County landfill, which is locally owned. And we have a long-term care process for that if there is any issues with the landfill. Otherwise you are now combining your garbage with a mega-landfill industrial waste and whatever else they choose to place in there. Because of that liability you guys have that ability to direct your waste to wherever you want via your contracting. Corporate counsel would not have allowed me to bring this to you guys if it was a concern of violation of flow control.”

City of Viroqua Attorney George Hopkins was asked if he reviewed the MOU.

“Nate (Torres) had me look at the letter from Southwest or GFL’s counsel,” said Hopkins. “And as you guys probably know the issue with litigation some of the time is not whether you’re right or wrong, it’s whether it’s going to happen. So whether we’re right or wrong, or liable or not liable, there’s still going to be a cost involved if there’s a lawsuit filed. Now as best I can tell I agree with Stacie, contractually we can contract to send our waste where we want to, because we are a market participant not a market regulator. We’re not creating an ordinance that’s directing where the garbage is going. We’re contracting with somebody saying, if you want to take our garbage you have to take it here, we have a right to do that as a market participant.”

Hopkins said that if there were a lawsuit the city, or anyone who signed on. would likely be named in that suit but it would be primarily directed at the county.

“Again, ultimately whether there’s any liability on the city for entering the MOU, honestly I could not find any cases or any precedent in Wisconsin that deals with it. My gut feeling is probably not, but again we’re looking at being along for the ride if it happens.”

City of Viroqua Attorney George Hopkins

“I think those claims would most likely be directed at the county if they’re filed,” said Hopkins. “However, as I learned in first year civil procedure, if there’s going to be a lawsuit, you sue everybody. So that would probably include everybody that signs on to the MOU. Again ultimately whether there’s any liability on the city for entering the MOU, honestly I could not find any cases or any precedent in Wisconsin that deals with it. My gut feeling is probably not, but again we’re looking at being along for the ride if it happens.”

“I’ll just add that if a company wants to do business in a county, a way to ensure that that never happens is to threaten them before you even sign a contract with them.”

City of Viroqua Alderperson Tanja Birke

“I’ll just add that if a company wants to do business in a county, a way to ensure that that never happens is to threaten them before you even sign a contract with them,” said Birke.

The motion to approve the MOU was made by Alderperson Todd Kirking and seconded by Alderperson Dave Tryggestad. The motion passed on a 9-0 vote.

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