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The Possible Bankruptcy Of Marion County Through Lack Of Democracy, Fiscal Irresponsibility & Special Interest Money

The Possible Bankruptcy of Marion County Through Lack of Democracy, Fiscal Irresponsibility & Special Interest Money by Eric Dover, MD

I have a well developed sense of place and I pay attention to things around me. Afterall, community is a learned behavior, like a marriage, and you have to give it your loving attention if you want it to work.

When I decided to move to Salem, in the Willamette Valley, I chose this place for its characteristic Oregon beauty and weather, and of course for the un-paralleled meeting of human community and functional natural environment. Having lived here a few years now, I have become alarmed about the long-term health of both.

At Least, They’re Consistent To begin with the human community here in Salem, there's the Courthouse Square mess, sometimes called “Courthouse Crater.” If you’re unfamiliar with Salem, this is an entire city block razed a year ago that carries all the characteristics you’d expect to find at the center of Sarajevo. There it sits, symbolic of something deeply wrong. Beyond this blight at the center of the state capital, Marion County lacks funding for infrastructure, mental health and drug addiction, fire and police services, not to mention niceties like public parks and libraries. Pollution of our water, soil and air affects public health.

Each of these situations suffers from a similar syndrome of three symptoms: lack of fiscal responsibility & accountability, concern about special-interest dollars tainting high level decisions, and almost no "public" input. These, in turn, can all be traced to a single source—the Marion County Commissioners.

Let’s just say you want a modest three to five minutes to address Marion County Commissioners about concerns at one of their weekly meetings. Well, you can’t do that. It isn't allowed. I have found that, in all issues brought before this public body, public input is allowed only in a "nonpublic" forum, such as telephone, mail or closed meeting.

Such high-handed treatment of citizens by public servants raises serious concerns for Marion County's future. But the problem goes deeper than that. When public health is threatened, such as with the Kinross mining operation slated for Opal Creek, or the perchlorethylene groundwater contamination at the State Penitentary in Salem, the County Commissioners have remained suspiciously mute or worse, have maintained a stubbornly intransigent ignorance on the subject.

To give you an idea of how difficult it is to participate in a planning process that affects a citizen, here’s an example I experienced personally.

A subdivision close to where I live, “The South Ridge Estates,” was proposed for a hilly area with a history of landslides and a proven seasonal groundwater shortage. My neighborhood association waded through multiple meetings with the County Planning Commission (a body of citizens with no expertise in planning) who listened to vested interests from both sides about groundwater and landslide concerns. Their recommendation, to give a green light to the project, was rubber-stamped by the County Commissioners in an “emergency meeting” called one Friday night for that purpose alone. Our Neighborhood Association then went through the Land Use Board of Appeals which found serious flaws in the handling of the decision process by Marion County, and remanded this issue back to the Commissioners. At that point, a county hearing officer re-heard the case, and again OK’d it. A suit was then brought against the county, and the Commissioners finally, belatedly, agreed to allow a public hearing. Mind you, this is one and a half years after the public initially asked for a hearing with the Commissioners. In that public hearing, evidence and recommendations from a hydro-geologist of the State Department of Water Resources were ignored by the head of the County Planning Department and were deliberately excluded from presentation to Commissioners.

Ultimately, the subdivision was scaled down to a little over half its original size, making neither side happy. Groundwater issues are still unaddressed. And there it remains, deadlocked.

The Tangled Web I’m concerned about the possibility of, or even the appearance of corruption in this county. If Marion County’s solid waste predicament represents County government in general, we have serious problems. I speak now as a private citizen and as a physician concerned about public health.

Like the entire industrialized world, Marion County has an unresolved problem with waste management. In a controversial decision 14 years ago, Marion County Commissioners decided to build the solid waste incinerator in Brooks, just north of Salem next to I-5. Since then, decisions and actions of county officials and plant administrators seem disingenuous and I have become quite skeptical regarding their motives, their financial relationships with each other, and their systems of gathering data “proving” plant safety and public health.

Four years ago, with no public input, Marion County Commissioners voted to extend the contract with the plant operators, Ogden-Martin (OM), to operate the incinerator for an additional 10 years beyond the original 20 year contract. The contract requires Marion County to supply 145 thousand tons of trash per year to burn. If the county doesn't supply it, ratepayers (that’s us) still pay operating costs and OM can import whatever type of trash they want to incinerate to make up the difference.

One problem I see is that any rigorous program to recycle, reduce or reuse our waste directly competes with the OM contract. Who negotiated that contract? Randall Franke was a member of the Marion County Commissioners at that time. Remember that name.

We've been told for the past 14 years that the smokestack emissions and ash pile from the solid waste incinerator are safe and meet federal guidelines. Recently, these EPA guidelines have become stricter and the incinerator can no longer legally emit the 500-800 pounds of mercury per year that they have been allowed for the past 14 years. The public, through trash fees, has payed about $2.5 million to "fix" this mercury emission problem. Mercury will no longer be discharged at levels previously seen from the smokestack. And that’s good.

But the mercury hasn’t magically gone away. Instead, it is now in the incinerator ash. So now we may have an ash problem, similar to Coos Bay, a community with a similar incinerator. They recently put a scrubber on their system to control emissions (in their case, lead rather than mercury). As a result, their fly ash is so toxic (with lead and cadmium) that it must be moved to Arlington's toxic waste dump in eastern Oregon, at a cost to the county of $265/ton.

What this all points to is the fact that the EPA’s standards are becoming more strict because of public health concerns. Retrofitting these old incinerators to comply is an expensive business for which rate payers are responsible. This also points to that old question, what health risks are we being exposed to today that will be considered toxic tomorrow? Dioxins? We know they’re in the emissions and the ash of Marion County’s incinerator. We know they’re toxic at any level. Yet we’re told there’s no problem with them being introduced into Marion County by this plant...But that’s another story.

A Deal with the Devil Unfortunately for Marion County residents, a deal with the devil may have been made on our behalf by our County Commissioners. Consider the players: the trash haulers have a monopoly in this county—not a good sign for an industry feeding at the public trough. OM itself has a cherry deal with Marion County, a contract that presently guarantees them $5.4 million dollars per year for incinerator operation—with annual increases for inflation, trash to burn, eventual ownership of the incinerator, no property tax payments, and no personal responsibility for any upgrades or problems associated with the incinerator or ashpile. In short, everything to gain and nothing to lose.

In real estate, it is prudent to look at “comparables” to get a realistic idea of the value of a deal. Using that same principle to analyze Marion County’s deal with solid waste disposal presents a revealing, if disconcerting picture. Consider this: other communities that brought in incinerators operated by OM, with contracts similar to ours, are now realizing they've made a horrible mistake.

• Lake County, southern Florida—Recycling is competing with incineration there. As they've reduced their waste stream through recycling and composting, they've been forced contractually to import medical waste and plastics (both very toxic, resulting in greater pollution with heavy metals and dioxin) to comply with their contract with OM. To the insult of increased pollution must be added the injury of a burdensome financial loss—the county's contractual costs are $74/ton, yet they receive as little as $16/ton for the imported waste.

From this story, we can infer that recycling in Florida is bad because it doesn’t support OM’s bottom line. How do you feel about a corporation dictating such terms here in Oregon?

• Warren County, New Jersey—They too have felt the sting of OM. Recent Supreme Court decisions make it illegal for counties to control the flow of solid waste. Haulers are now allowed to take the garbage to cheaper landfills and recycling facilities. Warren County is now poised for backruptcy and may default on bond debts of $77 million because, by contract, they are compelled to continue paying OM $6 million per year to operate the incinerator even though the county has been forced to lower rates to stay competitive. Warren County has no say in where OM gets the outside trash to make up for lost incinerator trash flow. OM is refusing to renegotiate the contract, leaving Warren County twisting in the wind.

Warren County’s nightmare could soon be Marion County’s day job.

Follow the Money This is America after all, and no one can fault OM for playing hardball—it’s the nature of the corporate beast. The point is, who represents the county when it comes to negotiating contracts for such deals? In Marion County, it’s the County Commissioners. Randall Franke is one of those commissioners.

The Marion County Commissioners recently wanted to build a landfill near the small town of Jefferson on prime wetlands to deal with the county’s increasing solid waste production. No public input was taken on the siting of this landfill. Previous studies had recommended against the wetlands site, yet the County Commissioners flagrantly wasted rate payers’ money on further studies and consultants to see if somebody would agree to this being a viable site. The Commissioners refused to listen to public input about considering recycling and reduction of waste as an alternative to landfill.

What’s most concerning here is the fact that Capital Recycling, a private garbage hauler with a monopolistic relationship with the county, purchased this very site a few years back for $300,000. Had the site been approved for a landfill, this company would have received $900,000 for that land. That’s a $600,000 profit on a short term investment. What a coincidence for a garbage hauler to own the very piece of land that the County Commissioners wanted to buy to put a garbage dump onto.

Here’s another concern. Marion County has a $20 million Solid Waste fund which I think is more appropriately referred to as a "slush fund." The sheer size of this fund is what makes it so interesting. If this huge financial excess was accrued by mistake, then it follows that garbage rates should be lowered and refunds given. On the other hand, this accumulation of solid waste largesse may be some kind of back-door tax calculated to supply money for other county needs. If so, then the payers (you and me) of said tax should have been informed and given consent to the tax. Regardless, since the money’s there, prudence dictates that the money be set aside for future environmental, public health, legal and repair costs associated with the incinerator and ashpile. Truth be told, the money is already paying for some of those needs, including the scrubber for mercury emissions, repairs on the ash monofill, and a new leachate holding tank.

It is a source of chronic irritation to me that these funds are also being used for repetitive studies and expensive consultants. Worse, the money, without public consent, is being "borrowed" for needs outside of the Solid Waste Department, such as Salem’s Courthouse Square debacle that I mentioned earlier.

Randall Franke & the Money Game It is virtually cliche to say that County government ought to welcome public input in a public forum. As always, Government should be the instrument of the people, not special interests. Everyone agrees conceptually, yet when it comes to deeds, some people appear to live outside the standard.

Randall Franke has accepted campaign contributions from three Ogden-Martin employees in New Jersey recently, totalling $1,950. Garbage haulers have contributed thousands of additional dollars to him. It doesn't surprise me that these individuals are moved to contribute. Trash has, after all, become big money in Marion County, ergo big money for Marion County politics. And Mr. Franke has played a significant role in crafting that reality.

Mr. Randall Franke has received many thousands of special interest dollars from both inside and outside the state for his campaign, and at the same time, he is one of the few people in county government allowed to vote on issues affecting these donors’ lucrative business dealings in Oregon. It’s an affront and it should stop.

Let’s Do It Right From my personal involvement in this community, I've discovered that Marion County’s Commissioners have consistently exhibited little concern or knowledge about public health. Worse, this group has demonstrated negligible inclination to educate themselves on the issues. Though they don’t act like it, they are public servants after all, and they need to listen—it’s part of their job description.

Meanwhile, corporate needs are being met while public needs go wanting. Infrastructure rots, yet the county pushes forward with “growth.” Gang violence increases yet we have fewer monetary resources for education, police and prevention programs.

We need open discussion and every-one, including those wily corporations so notoriously absent in the past, needs to pay their fair share. Government in this county needs to change direction or we could find ourselves in ruin, beholden to corporate policy setters and bottom line managers, and of course, their lawyers.

Eric Dover is a Family Physician for 10 years, six of them in Salem, Oregon. He is on the State and National Boards for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Eric is presently involved with Solid Waste and Perc issues in Marion county through Citizens Against Toxins. Eric Dover is running for the seat of County Commissioner with the Pacific Party against Randall Franke.

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