Council, Kim clash over composting

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The Hawaii County Council and Mayor Harry Kim remain at odds over the canceling of a composting contract.

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The Hawaii County Council and Mayor Harry Kim remain at odds over the canceling of a composting contract.

The agreement with Hawaiian Earth Recycling covers both mulching of green waste, such as tree trimmings, and construction of a $10.3 million composting facility to process food waste. Kim said his issue is with the latter part of the contract, which he says is too expensive and doesn’t meet the county’s solid waste goals.

But council members disagree. They knocked the ball back in Kim’s court Tuesday evening by unanimously voting against a resolution allowing the administration to seek a new three-year contract to continue mulching services beyond June 30, when the current contract terminates.

“We’re still not in agreement that the composting contract should be canceled,” said Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter on Thursday.

The vote in the Finance Committee occurred after a 2 1/2-hour executive session with Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela and other senior staff. The resolution will be up for vote again at a regular council meeting, though with a negative recommendation.

Council members said they intend to make the minutes from that closed-door meeting public.

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who chairs the council’s Environmental Management Committee, said the consensus was the county should instead seek amendments to the contract to avoid the potential of litigation and disruptions to mulching services. She said Friday she was considering bringing forward a resolution asking the termination notice issued in February to be rescinded.

“I consider it a very bad decision based on flawed analysis and poor information,” O’Hara said, of canceling the 10-year deal.

Kim said Thursday he still considers the contract, which went into effect last July under the previous administration, a bad deal for the county and that he needs to see something that counters that to change his mind.

“This puts a lot of burden on the county,” he said.

But he said Friday that he is open to amending the contract in order to ensure mulching services aren’t disrupted. Kim said his focus is ensuring those continue seamlessly, so that doesn’t mean he would be committing to continuing the composting plans.

Under the agreement, the company would be able to sell the compost while mulch would remain free for residents.

Kim said the county would be responsible for collecting and distributing food waste, primarily from restaurants and hotels.

O’Hara said she agrees the county is not prepared to start doing that. But she said such issues could be worked out by amending the contract or delaying the composting component, which was scheduled to start in 2018.

“I think all of this is doable with enough time,” O’Hara said.

She also said it’s unrealistic to expect a new mulching contract in place by June 30 even with the council’s consent.

Kim said he was advised that substantially changing the contract can’t be done without issuing a new request for proposals. That remains a concern, he said, though he’s open to discussions with the company.

Poindexter said the council voting unanimously against the resolution should send a strong message.

“I just hope that the mayor will seriously consider the concerns of the council members,” she said. “It speaks volumes when you come out nine strong.”

The contract doubled the amount the county pays for diverting organic waste to $85.08 or $99.58 per ton, depending on whether the mulch is produced at the West Hawaii or East Hawaii landfills.

Under the agreement, the county pays minimum annual payments to the company of $2.8 million, which would increase to $4 million after the composting facility is complete.

O’Hara said the new contract covers treatment of invasive species through the use of windrows so mulch doesn’t spread little fire ants. She said she’s also concerned about the spread of rapid ohia death if mulching isn’t done properly by another contractor.

“It’s more expensive because we’re doing a much better job and a job that needs to be done,” O’Hara said.

Greg Goodale, county solid waste division chief, previously estimated that dumping organic waste into the landfills costs the county between $135 and $140 per ton.

The planned placement of the facility next to the Hilo landfill, which is nearing capacity, has been opposed by Panaewa residents.

The contract allows the company to seek reimbursement for expenses if the deal is terminated.

Company Executive Director Mark Cummings told the council March 7 that it has purchased $1.2 million in equipment and spent a “pretty substantial” amount on development costs.

On March 1, Senior Vice President John Brigham said in a letter to the county that it could seek more than $4 million in reimbursements.

State Sen. Kai Kahele and state Rep. Chris Todd signed a letter urging the county to reconsider termination of the contract. They said concerns over placement of the composting facility should be addressed.

“The project can be a model for the rest of the state and we have no doubt would be implemented statewide in a few years,” the Hilo lawmakers said.

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Todd is the son of Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, who was county Environmental Management director when the contract was signed.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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