Northampton, MA—The city of Northampton runs its landfill as a business, and its Department of Public Works (DPW) maintains a separate set of books, known as the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund (SWEF), to account for the venture.
The Northampton landfill is poised to close in 2011, regardless of whether the City Council votes to expand the operation. At that point, all outstanding landfill operating debt must be retired. Money must be put aside for post-closure monitoring, and debt service on the capping will extend to 2017.
Last Wednesday, BPW members started to ask DPW chief Ned Huntley for some information on the the health of the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund. Can the landfill operation run enough black ink over the next two years to retire all outstanding obligations?
In this video, Huntley has just told the BPW that American Towers has offered the DPW a $634,000 one-time payment in exchange for a "perpetual easement" on a piece of landfill property that it leases for $25,000 a year. Huntley told the Board that the SWEF had "never anticipated" having to buy two homes, and said that the SWEF needed to be "made whole."
Board members chose not to make a hasty decision on the cell tower offer, and started asking Huntley questions about the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund.
When BPW member Rosemary Schmidt asked Huntley if he could provide the Board with financial figures on the SWEF's ability to meet landfill closure costs, Huntley initially said no.
"Not by the end of this year. We haven't even started our budget process yet," responded Huntley.
When pressed by Board chair Terry Culhane, Huntley told the BPW that "I believe that we're set on (closure and post-closure costs--but buying those two homes was never part of the equation."
Culhane insisted that "we need at least some attempt at putting the numbers on paper... It would make it clearer for everyone why there's a gap..."
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the stability of the landfill operation. In 1999, a long-range solid waste planning committee found that the city was operating a "10 year landfill with a 20 year debt cycle."
In 2007, DPW Director Ned Huntley presented the city council with a "closure and post closure plan" that showed that the SWEF could generate enough resources to retire all landfill debt by 2011.
Since then, a number of factors have impacted the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund.
In 2009, the city's landfill fund was forced to buy two homes near the facility as a part of a $1.2 million lawsuit settlement. The city has been unsuccessfully trying to sell these properties.
Legal costs and compliance costs have been higher than expected at the landfill. For instance, under a consent order from the Massachusetts DEP, the Northampton DPW must contract with a professional odor response team.
The landfill-gas-to-energy company Ameresco has withheld payments to the city in the amount of $150,000. The DPW has already appropriated $20,000 for legal expenses in its collection efforts.
The materials market has suffered due to the global economic crisis, reducing or eliminating any economic return from recycling on the local level.
The economic crisis has also been blamed for the fact that tonnage, and therefore tipping fees, are down at the landfill.