Negotiations that could determine whether cities in Sonoma County agree to send their garbage to the county's central landfill for the next 20 years are making significant progress and could result in a deal being struck soon.
Representatives of both the county and its affected cities expressed confidence this week that an agreement over liability for the central site and four of the seven former dumps across the county can be resolved soon enough to allow the landfill's private operator, Arizona-based Republic Services, to begin a needed expansion this summer.
"I'm hearing from both sides that we have come to agreement on all the major points," said Susan Klassen, the county's transportation and public works director.
At issue is who should bear the long-term liability associated with the central landfill in the event Republic should go out of business — the county, which owns the 400-acre site west of Cotati, or the cities, which have been dumping their garbage in it for two decades. A second but related issue involves how much it will cost to maintain and monitor the closed dump sites and who shoulder that burden.
Klassen said she is hopeful that the issues can be resolved in time to allow Republic to soon begin an expansion needed to keep the county from running out of room at the central landfill, which she said she expects to happen by the fall.
Further delay could push the expansion into 2015 and force the county to haul, at significant expense, 100 percent of its garbage out of the county. Today, about half of the county's 240,000 tons of waste is trucked to other Bay Area landfills.
Republic remains hopeful a deal can be finalized soon enough to have the bulk if not all of the expansion work done before rains return in the fall, said Rick Downey, the company's Sonoma County operations manager.
The company has been operating the landfill on an interim basis since 2010. It is set to permanently take over management under a 20-year deal worth an estimated $547 million.
The county, which will retain ownership of the landfill, approved the outsourcing deal last year, but cities have yet to sign on by committing their garbage. Downey said it has been frustrating to watch the negotiations drag on, but he said he's optimistic now that the cities and the county have reached what he called a "tentative agreement."
"All of the T's have been crossed and the I's dotted from my perspective," Downey said.
City representatives confirmed significant progress has been made but cautioned that some issues remain unresolved. Elected leaders of various cities have yet to be formally briefed on the latest progress.
"I think the discussions are progressing, but I need to make sure that all of other cities are on board with the direction the negotiations are going," said Caroline Fowler, Santa Rosa's city attorney and point person representing the cities in the negotiations. "I think we've moved forward on some of the major issues, but there are some details to be resolved."
Santa Rosa has taken a leadership role in the negotiations because it is by far the largest source of garbage sent to the central landfill and because it is the city with the largest in-house legal department.