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County solid waste program remains solid

A year after John Magnuson sold the business, Beltrami County's solid waste still flows west to Fosston and Polk County's incinerator.

"John Magnuson ran a very good place and good employees -- that makes my job easier," Eric Brown, manager in Bemidji for Waste Management Inc., told Beltrami County commissioners Tuesday.

Waste Management, a Twin Cities firm, bought Magnuson's operation about a year ago. The operation transports county solid waste to Fosston, operating transfer stations in Bemidji and several rural county areas.

The Bemidji site includes drop-off areas for recyclables, electronics, used oil, demolition material and features a free trade area for people to deposit items for others to use. All except demolition landfill materials are deposited free to county residents.

County residents, in turn, pay a $116 annual service charge that is tacked onto their property tax bills. Commercial accounts on charged based on a volume tier system.

"Our big focus is safety," Brown said. "We've done a lot of things to protect the employees and the public. We do comply will all OSHA regulations."

Safety equipment, such as yellow vests and steel-toed boots are supplied by the company, he said.

"Our mission is to provide access to Beltrami County residents to an environmentally/economically sound solid waste management program," said County Environmental Services Director Bill Patnaude.

Total solid waste tonnage from Beltrami County decreased last year to 21,892 tons from 22,476 in 2007. Prior to that, 2004 was the last year the tonnage was below 22,000 tons.

In the county's first year with Polk County as the county's destination for solid waste, 1988, tonnage was 10,230 tons.

Tonnage actually going to the incinerator -- minus recyclables and special burns -- hovers around 13,000 tons. The county is contracted with Polk County to deliver 13,000 tons this year, but office manager Mike Albrecht said he doubted the county would reach that level in 2009.

It sent 12,313 tons to the incinerator in 2008, while contracted to deliver 13,900 tons. Beltrami County is the largest user of five member counties, which together sent 32,317 tons to the incinerator, down from 33,000 contracted with the counties.

Beltrami County is contracted to deliver 13,100 tons in 2010, up to 13,500 tons in 2014, when a new contract with Polk County will need to be negotiated.

"Has Polk County done anything to cut costs from its Cadillac operation?" asked County Administrator Tony Murphy.

"The message has been sent that times are tough and they will have to watch costs," said Patnaude. "Polk County is very diligent in applying for grants. We do have a top-notch facility."

Frost wondered if the lower solid waste tonnage is a reflection of more conservation efforts by residents "or are people pitching things in the woods."

Illegal disposal in the woods dropped significantly with the service fee, Patnaude said, adding that the problem is no worse today.

Markets for recycled materials are also tough, a Waste Management official said. While county residents can dispose of nearly all materials for free, the company is losing money on selling recyclables.

"John picked a good time to retire," Brown said.

County commissioners, in another matter, decided to seek an independent commercial appraiser for an appraisal of the old county fairgrounds behind Target Store.

If the appraisal is good, Murphy said commissioners, with Bemidji City Council members as the city has a stake also, could decide to outright sell the land or lease it.

"We should explore leasing it before divesting from it," said Frost.

"It's better to sell it and build something, and get it on the tax rolls," said Murphy.

If the appraisal isn't high enough, commissioners could decide to do nothing and continue to hang onto the property, Murphy said.