Did waste firm get break from city? Yard waste fees piled up unpaid while Advanced pondered move of jobs here
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 4, 2012.
A waste disposal company looking for incentives from Jacksonville City Hall may have underpaid the city by tens of thousands of dollars over the past four years, according to internal emails, a situation discovered four to eight months ago but not yet dealt with.
Since that discovery, the city's solid waste department has studied what payments have been made by landfill operator Advanced Disposal and what should have been paid but has not taken any actions, Public Works Director Jim Robinson said.
Advanced CEO Charles Appleby said Tuesday the company was just alerted about the issue this week.
Appleby was a strong supporter of Mayor Alvin Brown during the race for the mayor's office last year and co-chaired Brown's budget and finance transition committee.
The furor over the issue led City Councilman John Crescimbeni, chairman of the council Finance Committee, to freeze $695,000 in incentives for Advanced to move its headquarters to Jacksonville, bringing with it 85 jobs with average salaries over $100,000.
That decision will be revisited by the Finance Committee on Tuesday before the full council votes on the incentive package that night. The company's board is expected to meet and make a decision on a headquarters city soon after.
Paul Crawford, acting head of the Office of Economic Development, said he talked to the company five times Wednesday, worrying that the controversy might lead to it getting cold feet.
A number of city officials stressed that the incentives for the broader company had nothing to do with local operations issues.
"We are focused on making both decisions in the best interest of taxpayers, " mayoral spokesman David DeCamp said. "Advanced Disposal continues to be a good partner with the city."
The possible underpayment stems from recyclable yard waste stored at Advanced's Old Kings Road landfill. The company pays the city $7.16 a ton for material that is stored at the site but doesn't pay the money if the material is recycled.
During visits to the site in February 2012 and June 2011, state inspectors discovered tons of yard waste stored at the site for more than 18 months. Both times, Department of Environmental Protection inspector Brian Durden said, the landfill operators were told they were not meeting the requirements of their permit.
Chief Marketing Officer Mary O'Brien said in an email that the company recycles the material by mixing it with soil and using it as cover material in the landfill operation, as a buffer layer on the bottom of a new cell being built at the landfill and as a filtration layer in other portions of the landfill, all uses permitted by the state.
Durden didn't accept that. "I have consulted with other DEP staff and I consider the use of processed yard trash as 'select waste' in the filling of the new disposal unit as disposal and not recycling, " he wrote in an email to the city.
Although the city's host fee is only a few dollars a ton, the amount can add up. In August, for example, the landfill took in 16,001.77 tons but only paid for 15,860.61 tons. The extra material would have netted the city about $1,010 for that month.
It is unclear how long the issue has been going on, but in an email to Advanced last week, a city solid waste employee said the landfill's monthly tonnage report "regularly does not agree" with the payment the city receives. Wednesday, acting Chief of Solid Waste Jeffrey Foster estimated the payment as at least $42,000.
City reports show that Advanced routinely says it has recycled all of the yard waste it takes in.
Although last week's email appears to be the first time the company was contacted about the situation, the issue was brought up internally at least as early as May 2. That afternoon, Foster sent his boss, Robinson, a draft of a letter he wanted to send to an Advanced district manager.
The draft letter says Solid Waste's position is that the yard waste "constitutes a disposal activity of which host fees would apply." The letter asked for a "full and complete accounting" of yard waste material brought to site, requesting that the information be provided within 30 days.
That letter wasn't sent, Robinson said Wednesday, because he decided to wait until the state released certified totals as to how much material Advanced has taken in, something that should happen in mid-October.
The situation then lay moribund for just over three months before popping up again in August, emails show, when Advanced began moving material into a new cell.
"They are using this material as select waste in their new disposal unit, " Foster wrote after receiving an email from Durden reiterating the state's position that such activity wasn't recycling. "Can we go forward with the request to account for all COJ [City of Jacksonville] yard waste recycling to see if we are owed any host fees?"
Now, Robinson appeared to want to move ahead with trying to collect the money.
"I believe we should pursue the host fees, " he wrote in an email to Foster that was copied to Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cleveland Ferguson.
Nothing was sent to the company, though, Robinson said.
"At that point, there was the choice of sending the letter or now waiting an even fewer number of months or weeks to get the information [about what was in the landfill], " the public works director said Wednesday. "The decision was to go back to our original strategy and wait for this October time frame."
The issue comes at an awkward time for the city's dealings with Advanced, which is in the process of seeking city incentives as it makes a decision about expanding its headquarters. Jacksonville is competing against Atlanta, Milwaukee and Charlotte, N.C.