Sonoma County, private operator near $547 million deal to run troubled landfill

  • Heavy equipment spreads and compresses garbage at the Sonoma County Landfill, on the highest portion of the property, Friday April 5, 2013 near Petaluma. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

For most Sonoma County residents, the garbage goes into the bin and out the door each week almost as an afterthought.

But for nearly a decade that trash — now at about 235,000 tons a year from homes and businesses, excluding recycled material — has created a major financial dilemma for cities and county government.

Together, they face more than $90 million in liabilities for current and former waste sites and the prospect of a continuing pattern of sharp consumer rate hikes to cover those costs, as well as expenses for recycling and other refuse programs.

The latest solution is a 20-year contract worth more than half a billion dollars that would outsource operations of the solid waste system.

It would give control of the county's troubled 42-year-old central landfill west of Cotati to an Arizona company with $8 billion in annual revenue. But it would keep the site, and the county's five waste transfer stations, in public ownership.

The proposal is being called the largest public-private business deal in county history and is headed to the Board of Supervisors for the first time Tuesday.

The agreement would be the latest example of cash-strapped local government outsourcing what was once a core public service. In the case of landfills, that change in operation and ownership began in the Bay Area and elsewhere many years ago.

Sonoma County's latest move, in fact, is an outgrowth of a controversial and ultimately failed attempt to sell the Mecham Road landfill amid what turned out to be a five-year closure, starting in 2005, resulting from water pollution concerns raised by state regulators.

The landfill reopened in late 2010, but only to about half the county's waste stream. The rest goes to a Solano County landfill.

The 20-year contract to permanently reopen and expand the dump — a deal worth an estimated $547 million, according to a county consultant — would go to Arizona-based Republic Services, the country's second-largest solid waste firm, with operations in 38 states. The subcontractor in charge of the five waste transfer stations would be the locally based Ratto Group of Companies, the county's dominant trash hauler.

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