City Hall Hustle: Play It Again, MRF

There's many a slip twixt the dais and the big blue bin

By now, the materials recovery facility debate is itself more recycled than a toothbrush reassembled from Chinese drywall – and dueling resolutions regarding the selection of the city's next recycler may make the process just as toxic.

A little background: Unhappy with their current recycling contract with Greenstar North America (aka Mid-America Recycling), City Council made it a priority for Austin to get its own MRF, a way station for sorting and expediting recyclables. Toward the end of last year, as part of a conservation-based realignment of Solid Waste Services, the city issued a request for MRF proposals.

What followed was perhaps the most garbled bid process in recent history. In January, the city disqualified two bidders – Greenstar and Texas Disposal Systems – for violating anti-lobbying provisions. TDS exec Bob Gregory had e-mailed several city officials, urging them to reject a contract extension with Greenstar while the city sorted out MRF bidders; Greenstar responded that the letter was a violation of lobbying rules, and subsequently, both were ruled out of the MRF running. While Greenstar was ultimately allowed back in, TDS circumvented the process by offering its own MRF proposal as an amendment to its existing disposal contract with the city.

Council interest was piqued by TDS' generous terms, including an offer to process the city's recycling stream at a MRF built on TDS land, initially at no cost to the city. Last month, when council heard from the staff-selected finalists of the belabored RFP process – Allied Waste Ser­vices of Austin, Waste Management Recycle America, and Balcones ResourcesLee Leffingwell and Mike Martinez were both curious as to whether TDS' offer could be informally weighed against the others.

To virtually no one's surprise, at its last meeting council voted 5-2 to reject the applicants and cancel the RFP process. Then, to absolutely, positively no surprise, an item was posted to today's agenda (Thursday, June 24) requesting that the city manager negotiate both long-term and short-term contracts with Texas Disposal Systems and Balcones Resources (Item 81).

Given the contractual clusterfuckery thus far, the decision to abandon the RFP process to negotiate with a vendor previously prohibited from applying has come under scrutiny. While not a named sponsor (that would be the unorthodox coalition of Martinez, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade), Leffingwell is in support of Item 81 and doesn't see a problem. "First of all, there is no more RFP process – that was canceled at the last meeting," he says. "TDS was expelled from that RFP process because of a violation of the no-contact ordinance, and they received their punishment. ... The crime was allegedly committed. Whether it was or not is not relevant – they served their time. This is a new process we're beginning."

Given the dual negotiations with both TDS and Balcones, Leffingwell says, "It's not inconceivable that the end result might be some kind of contract with both of them." Neither is an extension with Greenstar, which, with a boost in the recyclables market, is no longer a money loser for the city. "We can extend the Greenstar contract for six months if we have to, and we'll see as a result of these negotiations if that's necessary or desirable."

Greenstar appears elsewhere in the council agenda, as Item 86, sponsored by Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole – the nays in the 5-2 vote abandoning the RFP process. Their item calls for negotiating a long-term recycling contract with only Balcones Resources and for an extension with Greenstar until the MRF is up and running.

"We went through eight months of an RFP process," says Spelman, "involving hundreds of hours of staff work, hundreds of hours of contractors' work. ... If we are going to honor that RFP process, then the thing to do is pick one of the top three finishers. Balcones is local, has a very good environmental track record, and had as good a proposal as anybody else did on technical merits."

Addressing the bigger picture, Spelman says, "I'm certainly worried this is going to be an invitation to other contractors to say, 'Let's talk to the council directly; let's avoid the ordinance completely and see what kind of a deal we can make politically.' ... If we have an ordinance that says you're not supposed to do that, then we ought to either honor the ordinance or decide the ordinance is more trouble that it's worth and repeal it."

Regardless of the outcome – which, with a solid majority behind it, is inevitable approval of Item 81 – the MRF saga isn't over yet: As the items only call for negotiations, approval of a long-term contract isn't expected until September, while a short-term agreement needs to be inked in the summer before the Greenstar contract expires. Either way, we're not down to the bottom of the blue bin yet.

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materials recovery facility, Mid-America Recycling, Greenstar of North America, Solid Waste Services, Texas Disposal Systems, Allied Waste Services of Austin, Waste Management Recycle America, Balcones Resources

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