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Environmental Services plundered, according to concerned residents of Marion County

Environmental Services plundered, according to concerned residents of Marion County

Critics like Sally White are unhappy that an acclaimed division of Marion County government has been “disemboweled to pay for the Courthouse Square fiasco.”  White, retired after teaching science for 21 years, says that the income, reserves and budget for Marion County’s Environmental Services have been plundered, and that County Commissioners have presided over the matter with indifference.

“The problem is that {Marion County] Board of Commissioners started paying for county expenses – money that should have gone to a bond – from Environmental Services,” says Bruce Wadleigh, owner of Barnwood Naturals, a Salem building design firm that handles 100% reclaimed lumber.  “The money should not be swiped from Environmental Services – or the environment, for that matter.”

Environmental Services is the division of Public Works that performs a wide variety of functions in Marion County, including managing landfills, recycling, education in public schools and the EarthWISE certification program that brings business benefits to the region.

Environmental Services has earned revenue for the county for years.  This money comes from sources that include charges for medical and construction waste disposal, fees for recovering metals from ash and its sale of the electricity it produces 13.5 megawatts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from burning garbage from trash incineration and sells to Portland General Electric.  The lion’s share of its income comes from “tipping fees,” the bill individuals and garbage haulers pay to dump.

The department has been so successful earning money from these “solid waste fees” that it boasted substantial reserves for years.

Historically, funds collected by the county from solid waste fees could only be used for solid waste management-related activities, which meant that Environmental Services used its income itself, to fund a wide variety of non-income producing services to the county.

But in 2009, the Marion County Board of Commissioners changed the law and made Environmental Services electrical revenues only available to the board to do with as they saw fit.  Seven million was taken from the department’s revenue and used to pay for repairs and lawsuits associated with the improperly constructed County Courthouse Square in downtown Salem.

Funds have been diverted ever since, so that currently Environmental Services faces the distinct prospect of losing almost every service it provides that does not directly earn money.

At stake are programs and employees that advocates for Environmental Services say, while not expressly “income producing,” bring significant value to our region.

One program, EarthWISE Certification for local businesses, has produced benefits for employers ranging from The Salem Convention Center to the building firm Barnwood Naturals.  EarthWISE certification means that the Environmental Services department has ensured the business practices “green” behavior such as waste reduction, composting, recycling, material reuse and energy efficiency.

It’s good for business

“The sole reason I located my business in Marion County is the EarthWISE Certification program,” says Bruce Wadleigh, owner of Barnwood Naturals, whose clients include many Salem businesses as well as upscale restaurants in New York and Florida.  “EarthWISE Certification has helped me grow my business by 200% over the past 5 years.”

Chrissie Bertsch, General Manager of the Salem Convention Center, says certification helps her bottom line as well.  “A lot of clients would ask if we composted, if we were green, and we worked really hard to get our certification in place.”  Environmental Services helped the Convention Center become LEED certified as well, Bertsch adds, and assisted with “a pilot program to recycle all the food before and after an event… So we definitely attract clients who celebrate green practices.”

Other Environmental Services efforts have included a recycling coordinator at Salem-Keizer schools and the “Green Schools” program.  When she was teaching, White says that “with the help of a stipend awarded to Green Schools,” her students learned “environmental projects such as vermicomposting (composting with earthworms)” and practices such as ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle.’

Laurie Aguirre, Second Grade teacher and Environmental Coordinator at Forest Ridge Elementary School, similarly praises Environmental Services work with area children, describing field trips to an Earth Walk “which exists because of this department” that she says amazes parents and children alike, and activities such as “waste audits with the students, and a whole host of other opportunities.”

A Master Recycler program established by Environmental Services has inspired hundreds of area residents, as has a Green Award which was this year conferred on SAIF Corporation.  Also vital to Environmental Services has been continual public education, so that people know about and are reminded of habits that improve and enrich the community.  Environmental Services collects batteries, florescent tubes and heavy metals that are toxic in landfill.  It teaches and manages recycling; because of its efforts of the department, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has recognized Marion County as leading the state in waste reduction and recovery three out of the last five years.

Jim Green, President of the Board of the Friends of Straub Environmental Learning Center, who became a Master Recycler in 2009, describes the department as “one of the best of its kind in the nation; very effective.”
But the temptation to use the income Environmental Services generates, while slashing the services it provides, has proven difficult for Marion County Commissioners to resist.  One of the first to go was the school Recycling Coordinator position.

When White learned of this, and discovered that additional cuts were coming, including “the complete gutting or elimination of the Master Recycling Program and its affiliated services to schools, businesses and the community at large,” she decided to sit in on a July 24 budget meeting attended by Marion County Commissioners Janet Carlson, Patti Milne and Sam Brentano.

What she heard upset her

“There is no use in beating around the bush,” she says.  “I learned that the County Commissioners needed the monies that funded Environmental Services to cover their overt appropriation of funds to bring to code the Courthouse Square building.”
Commissioners expressed willingness to cut more Environmental Services staff and services in the future.  “They want to use money [for other county departments] that had been acquired by the very same staff whose positions they deemed unnecessary,” says White.  “Why don’t they just propose a bond instead of ruining this valuable department?”

“Let’s go after the people that caused the problems at Courthouse Square in the first place,” Wadleigh says, “or pay the cost from a bond.  We need the people of Environmental Services to keep working out there to protect us from mercury and fluorescent lights going in the ground.”

“Costs should be borne by the contractors who screwed up in the first place, not the County,” Green believes, though he’d be willing to pay more for his garbage hauling to pay for the department.  “It would be a tremendous loss to our community to make… cuts to Environmental Services.”

White suggests that citizens contact commissioners “and tell them that we know of, and appreciate the services rendered by Environmental Services.  And that we do not want to turn back the clock in these areas.”
”Commissioners, she says, need to “find another way to take care of their misuse and misappropriation of funds.”

Repeated unsuccessful requests were made to Marion County for comment on this story.  We continue to invite their perspective.

11 Comments

  1. When DIY Studio was formed as a non-profit, we were hopeful to take advantage of the grant program through Marion County Environmental Services. The grant was removed and budget has been slashed.

    We are a great county because of our services and I’m disheartened to see Master Recycling classes, educational programs, and environmental programs getting the brunt of the cuts, especially when Environmental Services generates revenue. Thank you Salem Weekly for sharing this information!

  2. It is unfortunate that something that is so successful gets their good fortune taken away by the greedy folks who say we can do as we want. It’s similar to what the feds have done to the social security funds and this was so successful at one time and now “they” say funds may run out in so many years. In this case why not go after the contractors/builders who “screwed” up in the first place. I guess it’s too much work to go after a bond than it is to “steal” from someone else’s account. Grrrrrrr!!!! Shame on the folks who sit on that board!

  3. Government, especially good government, requires accountability. It appears that Marion County Commissioners do not believe that they should be accountable for their actions – their actions are rather opaque and do not allow Marion County residents to question those actions. Good government requires that governments act in a transparent manner.

    Trust is hard to gain and easy to loose. The check is in the mail, it won’t hurt, no one will know, and Courthouse Square repairs will not impact County operations…

    We should know the source of funds, the programs that are being plundered to pay for Courthouse Square repairs. The Commissioner’s actions most likely have caused significant damage to other County programs, programs that took years to develop.

    The Commissioner’s lack of response continues the opacity surrounding their actions. A forensic audit is needed to provide the transparency good government requires.

  4. It is a lot worse than this article even states. The Marion County Commissioners are keeping the rates artificially high and refuse to do a Cost Of Service Analysis (COSA) because they are blaming the garbage haulers for the high rates. Truth is that the tipping fees are the real cause of higher service fees to the customers. Furthermore, taking the funds out of the Environmental Services budget puts us all at risk when one of the burners goes down or if one of the liners to the ash pits fails. One is already showing signs that it will not last but a couple of years. I have tracked the incinerator for over 20 years and studied how they operate. The truth is not a pretty picture. Marion County residents are just pawns in a very dangerous game of roulette that we are bound to lose eventually. I agree that the Commissioners not staff is to blame. They just signed a new contract with Covanta. I urge people to read it. Like the previous contract Covanta keeps all the revenue and leaves us with the liability for both the ash and the burner repairs. Marion County residents paid for the incinerator, but we do not own it! I urge people to contact their county commissioners (especially Sam and Janet) and hold them accountable!

  5. The lack of the Marion County Commissioners’ transparency is very disappointing. The Commissioners seem to care more about how their re-appropriating of the Environmental Services budget will make them look to the public rather than the value that these programs bring to the community. In fact, it appears that they don’t necessarily see any value to these programs. As Commissioner Milne said in an August meeting, “How valuable are these programs? I don’t know. They don’t mean anything to me quite frankly. They don’t change my life.”

    These programs have real environmental benefits, teach children (especially before they defunded the Salem-Keizer School District educator), and help businesses save money and showcase their environmental stewardship. It’s a shame that the Commissioners don’t all value this.

    It’s not too late for the Commissioners to listen to their constituents who are proud to have one of the leading solid waste programs in the nation. Maintaining the current budget would cost something like $6 a year for most households. They could eliminate a subsidy to contractors that allows them to pay a lower rate than households. They have benefited from this lower rate for 20+ years. They could charge more to out-of-county companies that want to bring their medical waste to Marion County or reject it outright and raise rates a fraction of a cent.

    There are many other things they could do but their attitude appears to be that these programs “don’t mean anything to me quite frankly.”

    Thank you Salem Weekly for publishing this article. With the Statesman Journal’s continual decline of local coverage, it’s nice that you are willing to shed some light on this unfortunate situation.

  6. Marion County Commissioners are hell-bent-for-leather to develop ALL of Marion County and they do not in the least nor have they ever supported healthy farm lands, small sustainable farmers, organic, or our ecosystems and not really our watersheds – or sustainable building. Marion County Commissioners are in league with the developers and always have been. For 4 years I was an elected official for Marion Soil and Water Conservation District which tuned out to be nothing more than a smoke screen for “conservation” in Marion County and to cover the really bad ethics of our commissioners. If you want to fix this issue, vote in honest and ethical people who care about and who prepare for 7 generations of citizens yet to come. I would be very happy to be one such commissioner.

  7. After looking at the Marion Co. budget summary (online) for 2013-14, I was shocked to also see a 78% reduction in the budget for Children and Families (over 2 million $), and other reductions in some key areas (building inspection, land use, traffic safety). Yet there is an increase in community corrections (over 1 million $). Priorities? Write your commissioner — http://www.co.marion.or.us/BOC/

  8. This is such bad news. The people in environmental services worked so hard to give us amazing programs that take care of our environment. It’s not fair to take everything these people built for the greater good. Shame on our commissioners.

  9. The fact that the blame for the Courthouse disaster was put squarely on the shoulders of one engineer who conveniently happened to be deceased and not on the contractors who did this shoddy work in the first place is a scandal. An even greater scandal is that the current Marion County Commissioners are trying to pay for this big mess-up by plundering the Environmental Services budget and disemboweling the Master Recyclers Program and similar educational services whose impact I have seen on my own children. You may not think we care – I hope the next election will prove you wrong.

  10. Commissioner Jolene Kelley wrote this to me: “Thank you for contacting the Marion County Board of Commissioners Office. I have attached a Frequently Asked Questions and timeline that helps give an overview of the Environmental Services program as well as the events leading to the budget shortfall. The article you saw contained a number inaccuracies and we hope the attached documents help answer your questions and provide clarification about the current status of the program.” The Commissioner stated she also sent the documents to the author of this article. If there is a followup by Helen Caswell, I would be interested in her take on the documents sent by the Commissioner. Thanks!

    • Michel, if you received a letter from Jolene Kelley leading you to think she is a Marion County Commissioner, then the very nature of the letter supports our concerns that the Commissioners act solely in their own interests and the interests of the cabals backing them. Jolene Kelley is the point person on “Public Information” according to the county website.

      If she speaks for the commissioners, who govern (?) the county like Kabuki theater and who need assistants in order to avoid meeting together in order end-run Oregon’s public meetings law, then you have (mixing metaphors) something out of the Wizard of Oz. The Holy Trinity (Three Stooges?) constituting the Marion County Commission are Sam Brentano, Janet Carlson, and Patti Milne.

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