VernonReporter

UPDATE: Vernon County rescinds proposed MOUs with local municipalities to haul waste to the Vernon County landfill

12-5-23 UPDATE – Comments by Vernon County Board Chair Lorn Goede were added to this story.

VIROQUA, Wis. – After several years worth of work by the Vernon County Solid Waste Department to get most of the local units of government to sign onto a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would direct their waste to the Vernon County landfill, Vernon County made a sudden reversal last month to rescind all of those MOU’s.

Vernon County Solid Waste Administrator Stacie Sanborn had presented the MOU’s to local units of government (townships, villages and cities) throughout the county over the last year or more, getting commitments from about 77 percent of them to haul their waste to the Vernon County solid waste facility in exchange for a tipping fee rebate.

The MOUs were part of an effort by Sanborn and the county to ensure that the county would have sufficient volume to justify an expansion project of the facility. The existing landfill is only a few years away from being full, and getting DNR approval to build another cell takes about five years. That planning and approval process began around 2019 when the county approved a feasibility study needed for that DNR approval. That feasibility study was just completed in October and has now been submitted to the DNR.

The cost to expand will be several million dollars and in order to make sure the the county will have sufficient revenue to pay for that expansion the county needed some assurance that most of the counties waste would come to the facility, and not be hauled out of county. The MOU’s were an attempt to guarantee enough volume that the county would be comfortable enough to approve the expansion that will extend the life of the facility by about 15 years. Those MOUs stated the local unit of government agreed to send their waste to the facility in exchange for a reduced tipping fee, or a rebate. That rebate varied based on how long of a commitment they were willing to make to the county facility.

On October 19 the Vernon County Board of Supervisors voted 14-3 to expand the Vernon County landfill with the understanding that Sanborn had gotten the signed MOUs and commitments from those local units of government. You can read our previous story about that meeting and that vote here.

However, following that meeting, and that vote, County Administrative Coordinator Cassie Hanan sent a letter to those local units government stating the county will not sign those MOU’s and will be rescinding them. You can read that letter below.

How the decision was made to rescind those MOUs is not quite clear. The county Infrastructure Committee held a closed session on Oct. 17, two days before the board vote to expand the landfill facility. There was no mention of rescinding those MOUs at the county board of supervisors meeting two days later where they voted on expansion. The special meeting of the Infrastructure Committee was specifically held to discuss the proposed hauler agreements. Hanan said no vote was taken at that meeting to rescind the MOUs. But she did say “The basis behind the County not moving forward with the MOUs has to do with the enforcement of the County’s flow control ordinance, and how it relates to state statutes.”

October 17 special meeting of the Vernon County Infrastructure Committee

  1. 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 regarding the proposed Hauler Rebate Agreement. 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. Roll call vote required unless unanimous.
  2. Possible Action on Hauler Rebate Agreement

The Infrastructure Committee did discuss communicating with local units of government about the MOUs at their Nov. 14 meeting but it does not appear that the committee voted on rescinding the MOUs.

The county had revised its previous flow control ordinance on the advice of County Corporation Counsel Nikki Swayne. Flow control is a tool local units of government sometimes use in local ordinances to direct waste to a specific facility. Vernon County previously had such an arrangement that required haulers to agree to haul their waste to the county facility in order to get a license to haul in the county. That ordinance was rescinded in 2019 and replaced by a new ordinance that allowed the county to negotiate tipping fees and agreements with each individual hauler. The county appears to have rescinded the MOUs on legal advice from Corporation Counsel based on the interpretation that the MOUs conflicted with the county flow control ordinance.

What the rescission of the MOUs will mean to the counties ability to direct enough volume to the facility to make sure it has the revenue needed to operate is not clear.

Vernon County Board of Supervisors Chair Lorn Goede

In a phone interview, Vernon County Board of Supervisors Chair Lorn Goede said the decision to rescind the MOU’s was made after the infrastructure committee was advised by their legal counsel that the MOUs likely were not enforceable. Goede said the MOUs were an attempt to see what kind of commitment there was on the part of local units of government to keeping the county landfill open.

“They (MOUs) served their purpose and we decided that they probably weren’t needed,” said Goede. “They probably aren’t enforceable anyway, so we just felt like they weren’t necessary.”

Goede said he still feels there will be enough commitment from local communities that the volume will be sufficient to make the landfill viable.

“I am comfortable that we will have the volume,” said Goede. “Now that we got the go ahead for the expansion we are looking at a lot of things that just weren’t feasible before.”

Goede said the solid waste department is looking into expanded recycling programs and things like composting.

“We are looking at lots of things that we hope will make Vernon County proud to have this facility,” said Goede.

Goede also noted that the letter that was sent to the municipalities was on the Vernon County Solid Waste letterhead by signed by the county administrative coordinator because Solid Waste Administrator Sanborn did not agree with it and did not want to sign it.

The city of Viroqua voted unanimously at their city council meeting on Nov. 14 to send their waste to Vernon County for at least one year, regardless of the MOU. The city of Viroqua would have seen a $2 per ton rebate with the MOU in place, or a tipping fee of $58 a ton. Without the MOU they will pay the same flat rate as the rest of the county or $60 a ton. With an estimated 1,200 tons of waste a year that means the city will pay about $2,400 a year without the rebate. According to City Administrator Nate Torres that cost would be spread out over about 1,800 consumers in the city that will increase the cost maybe 10-15 cents per customer.

Discussion on City of Viroqua MOU with county solid waste starts at around the 47 minute mark

During that Nov. 14 Viroqua City Council meeting Torres stated that “the original decision torescind it (the MOU) was made in October 17 (the Infrastructure Committee closed session), but we were only made aware of it recently and the infrastructure committee only officially, I think, killed it today. So we’re we’re playing with some new information here.”

“The nice thing about the agreement when it was passed was it did guarantee pricing for at least one year,” said Viroqua Mayor Justin Running. “Right? “We didn’t know what the next year would be, but at that point, that agreement expired and it would have given us the opportunity to go back. I’ve not heard, and I don’t know you know the $60 a ton is that is there any kind of a guarantee for a duration of time for that. Being that it’s not in an agreement, if costs rise at the landfill I would assume the costs will go up mid year, and I don’t know. Those are the concerns, right? Like as a city, we need to make sure we’re not putting ourselves in a position to have greater exposure financially than we need to.”

Torres asked the council how they wanted to handle the portion of the proposed contract with GFL regarding the requirement that they haul all city waste to the county facility.

“I think the big thing was that we we’re all pretty supportive of the landfill in their expansion,” said Alderperson Andrew Bergum. “That was part of that plan, was for that garbage to go there. That if garbage doesn’t go there, to their point rates are going to go up. My personal thought is that it has to go there. And I know that GFL probably doesn’t want that verbiage in that agreement.”

GFL has a transfer station in the city of Viroqua and has said they intend to haul the city waste to their own facility that they own in Eau Claire at the end of the year when their current arrangement with the county expires.

“The reasons cost would increase is if tonnage decreased because people start pulling volume,” said Sanborn. “As the director of the department my goal is to maintain a competitive tipping fee to try to be more competitive with our local landfills like La Crosse, Monroe County, and again, you guys also need to keep in mind that yes, there are landfills across the state that could be cheaper, but you have to truck it there and trucking doesn’t get cheaper. So please, keep that in mind when you’re considering tipping fees. The county landfill is only four miles from your door.”

Alderperson Cyndy Hubbard and Mayor Running asked Sanborn why the county decided to reverse course.

“Yeah, I’m probably going to get written up for that too,” said Sanborn. “But it was under instruction, after Corporate Counsel helped draft the MOU, they’re rescinding that. They’ve chosen to rescind that and not follow through with the the remainder of it. And that’s per the infrastructure committee that is per guidance from Corporate Counsel.”

“So they have concern about potential litigation by doing this and they chose not to?” asked Running. “Am I correct in that?”

“Yeah,” said Sanborn “By the by potential people that are requesting language be removed.”

“I think it’s pertinent because we were asked to sign an MOU in partnership with County,” said Torres. “And then for them to rescind it without any information being shared as to why. And I’m I’m not trying to point fingers, but I’m of the understanding that you’re working on crafting official communication to the entities to explain this, and it will be coming from the infrastructure committee that was approved, that wording was approved today. I don’t know, to me, there is no explanation really given in it. It’s just, they are rescinding the MOU.”

“I still don’t like the idea of all of our waste going to Eau Claire,” said Hubbard.

“I still don’t like the idea of all of our waste going to Eau Claire,” said Hubbard.

Viroqua Alderperson Cyndy Hubbard

Running pointed out that the language as proposed in the contract would still require GFL to haul its waste to the county facility, but if other communities do not require it, other haulers may be able to haul their waste out of county.

“Our contract says they have to,” said Hubbard. “As of right now, that’s what I’m saying if we take that out they’re not going to.”

“That is correct,” said Running.

“For me as the administrator, year one, $2,400 can be absorbed by the rate payers fairly easily,” said Torres. “My concern isn’t there. After like 2025, there’s probably going to be some sort of additional increase, but as Stacie (Sanborn) said that what happens in 2026 when the land the the expansion comes online, and the debt service starts having to be paid on the construction of or the expansion what do the rates look. Then the question becomes how much of a tipping fee is too high for the city? Would it continue to mandate our garbage go there?”

Viroqua Mayor Justin Running

Running said the risk to taxpayers is not in the tipping fees but in the landfill not meeting expenses and having to use tax levy to make it viable. (Running is also the former chair of the Vernon County Board of Supervisors and once chaired the Solid Waste Committee).

“This is speculation but I believe it to be fairly accurate,” said Running “At some point the tipping fees can only go up so much before it just doesn’t work anymore. The Vernon County landfill is an enterprise fund that runs on its own revenue generation. There’s no tax levy that goes into operating that. The risk is, if the tipping fee gets to a point where nobody will use it, it’s still is going to operate because they’re still they’re still obligated under their license to operate. It will then go on to the taxpayers, and every taxpayer in Vernon County, whether they’re using it or not will be paying through tax levy to fund the landfill.”

Torres said there is a provision in the contract that states if the city feels rates at the county landfill are cost prohibitive the city can opt out of the contract and renegotiate rates with GFL. Sanborn said the county has decided to charge $60 a ton for now and will revisit the issue in June, once they have a better handle on how volumes are impacted by the lack of MOUs. She also said the county is looking at other rebate options.

“It looked like the city of Viroqua was an important cog in the wheel that brought sufficient volume to the landfill to make it financially sustainable,” said Torres. “And I would just be nervous about already making a plan, where after year one if we don’t like where things are going we’re bowing out after the county has made the decision to expand the landfill. That’s what I would always feel bad about, but again I’m my main job is to advise the city. But as the mayor pointed out, we all live in the county. Right? All the residents of Viroqua live in the county, so their success is our success.”

Torres also asked what the county would do if the city of Viroqua did not commit to sending its waste to the county.

“In the interest of partnership what would the county, what would you expect the county to do if we just said we’re going to remove this language from the contract tonight?” asked Torres. “Would they just still move forward with landfill expansion, or would there be any reconsideration of that? Again, because in the interest of being a good partner, I think that’s how you convinced the whole group to jump in is landfill expansion, everybody needs to work together, everybody needs to buy into this, and at this point we’re talking about bowing out. Would the county just change their mind on expansion based on us leaving?”

Viroqua City Administrator Nate Torres

“In the interest of partnership what would the county, what would you expect the county to do if we just said we’re going to remove this language from the contract tonight?” asked Torres. “Would they just still move forward with landfill expansion, or would there be any reconsideration of that? Again, because in the interest of being a good partner, I think that’s how you convinced the whole group to jump in is landfill expansion, everybody needs to work together, everybody needs to buy into this, and at this point we’re talking about bowing out. Would the county just change their mind on expansion based on us leaving?”

“The the expansion decision was made at the full County Board level it passed 14 to three,” said Sanborn. “Because of the volume of us that were passed. A lot of County Board supervisors received a lot of calls from constituents wanting the expansion to proceed. If you guys choose to remove this language, it’s not a partnership. Then you’re allowing your waste to go elsewhere and the expansion decision has been made. I don’t know that they would revisit that decision considering it passed with such a high number.”

Running said if the city was going make the decision to not support the landfill they would be better off informing the county now, and if the city was going to support it, it should be for the long-term so the cost of expansion is shared by the residents of the county.

“I feel like if we’re going to do it we need to do it for the long-term,” said Running. “Because once the shovels go in the ground and the expansion begins those costs are sunk in there for 15 years. If we know that we’re just going to hang along for the ride for a year to see what happens, and then bail out, we should bail out now and let them have that ability to choose to revisit their expansion before they put shovels in the ground and determine if they can do it. I don’t want the county to get blindsided by us leaving in a year.”

“I feel like if we’re going to do it we need to do it for the long-term,” said Running. “Because once the shovels go in the ground and the expansion begins those costs are sunk in there for 15 years. If we know that we’re just going to hang along for the ride for a year to see what happens, and then bail out, we should bail out now and let them have that ability to choose to revisit their expansion before they put shovels in the ground and determine if they can do it. I don’t want the county to get blindsided by us leaving in a year.”

Viroqua Mayor Justin Running

“I don’t know why we leave because we still we’re still going to pay for it,” said Alderperson Todd Kirking. “Because we’re Vernon County residents.”

Kirking made a motion to keep the language in the contract with GFL to require them to haul the city waste to the Vernon County facility. Motion seconded by Alderperson Kristal Welter and passed on a unanimous voice vote.

It appears other local units of government feel the same as the city of Viroqua. Mark Davison is the Chairman for the town of Forrest. He said his township intends to send their waste to the county facility regardless, because his township sees that value of keeping the facility open.

“It won’t affect our township,” said Davison. “We don’t need an MOU. We want the landfill and we are willing to support it.”

As far as the letter that was sent by the county, Davison said he was surprised and it did not make sense to him.

“I was disappointed seeing it,” said Davison. “I don’t understand how an attorney (County Corporation Counsel) can help write an MOU and then turn around and say its not legal.”

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Tim Hundt

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  • If it wasn’t for your journalism, Tim, none of the citizens of this county would know what the hell’s going on nor would we be able to hold our elected officials accountable.

    Thank you…

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