Garbage Burner Beautification

Written by Jeff Johnson on June 10, 2009. Posted in Golden Hydrant

County Spends $700,000 on Landscaping at Garbage Burnergoldenhydrant_web

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (“HERC” a.k.a. “the garbage burner”) is a hulking complex in Minneapolis next to the new Twins stadium that can often be seen billowing smoke on a cold winter morning. It’s not a bad looking place (as far as county garbage burners go). It’s clean, neat and tastefully painted in pale tan with chocolate brown accent walls. “Not bad-looking”, however, just doesn’t cut it anymore for the HERC, at least not now that higher class neighbors are about to move in.

Last month, the county board approved a $1.95 million project to make the HERC look and smell a little better. 

The odor mitigation piece of the project totals approximately $250,000.  I find it somewhat annoying that taxpayers are incurring that cost after asking repeatedly as a legislator in 2004 whether garbage burner odors might pose a problem for the then-proposed ballpark and being told numerous times, “Don’t be silly; we have it under control.”

My annoyance regarding spending on odor mitigation, however, does not warrant the newest Golden Fire Hydrant award.  Instead, the proud recipient of this week’s award is that part of the garbage burner beautification plan dedicating approximately $700,000 for landscaping around the HERC.  (I provide an estimate because the overall project amount was reduced by the board and I am unaware at this point of the new cost breakdown).

Before I go on, a little background is in order.  The HERC was built in the mid-80’s in response to state legislation prohibiting land-filling of unprocessed municipal solid waste in the metro area.  Instead of sending Hennepin County waste to landfills, much of it is now sent to HERC to be burned.  HERC converts 365,000 tons of garbage a year into electricity that is sold to Xcel Energy.  HERC also will sell energy from the steam it generates to the new Twins ballpark and to other users in downtown Minneapolis.

Not a bad story.  I recently toured the HERC (look pretty manly in a hard hat, by the way) and was impressed with the operation.  Some might even consider it a successful innovative response to an onerous state mandate.  But do we really need to celebrate by breaking the bank on shrubs?

One of the reasons for this rather extreme expense: the elaborate design is intended to replicate the look of the rail lines that ran through this property years ago.  Pretty cool . . . and REALLY, REALLY expensive.

The money for this garbage burner beautification program will be taken from a pot of money dedicated to HERC operations known as the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund.  I’ve heard some argue that, because Enterprise Fund money is being used for the landscaping, there’s really no harm done to taxpayers because the money couldn’t be spent on other programs.  The Enterprise Fund, however, still consists of taxpayer dollars in the form of a direct property tax levy and of fees assessed on property owners’ waste-hauling bills.  It might be a dedicated pot of money, but it’s a dedicated pot of taxpayer money and should be spent more wisely than this.

These are tight times – for both government and taxpayers.  Some might reasonably argue that spending nearly three-quarters of a million bucks on landscaping at the county garbage burner is . . . oh, I don’t know . . . insane?!

Bottom line: Something stinks.  And it ain’t the garbage.

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