Fairfax County is at it again, trying to find another boondoggle to waste taxpayer money. I have been casually following Fairfax County's absurd proposal to purchase the Covanta Waste to Energy facility, but it seems that it is getting closer to a reality.
The information on this idea mentions that the Fairfax County staff has recommended moving forward on the proposal to spend more than $400 million to buy a waste-to-energy facility currently owned by Covanta Energy. With interest costs, the price will be just like a home -- its total cost will probably double, if not increase more.
Covanta has owned and operated the plant since 1988. The county now wants to purchase the facility in lieu of Covanta continuing as the owner and operator for another 20 years under a lease with similar terms to the last 20 years.
The information on the proposal indicates that county staff's analysis shows the lease option is more economical than a purchase by the county. I have been in the energy business for the better part of 50 years and this proposal looks to be fraught with pitfalls and costs that may not be factored into a decision.
In the first instance, a waste-to-energy facility that is 20 years old is nearing the end of its useful life. This means that in order to maintain the facility and meet environmental regulations, the plant will essentially require major maintenance and replacement of its key equipment. The cost of that maintenance may approach or exceed the original cost of the facility.
Secondly, I have never heard that the county possesses the expertise to do the purported analysis that supports their recommendation. Covanta is the expert, the county is the amateur. Furthermore, is that analysis available to the public?
Third, Covanta is in the business of making a profit. If retaining ownership was in its best financial interests, this proposal would have never seen the light of day. Covanta is all too willing to unload this facility for a reason -- maybe they want to go elsewhere with the $400 million to reap a better profit margin.
Finally, how do we pay for this facility? The county has a simple answer: let's borrow more money. How wise is that? The taxpayers of this county have had enough. Let's try to focus on a budget that we now know will require more cuts and austerity. Now is not the time to spend more; it's the time to spend less.
It is extremely disconcerting that the Board of Supervisors has discussed this purchase for some time, but the general public -- the taxpayers who will have to foot the bill -- have little knowledge about it. The purchase of a facility of which the county has no expertise is a questionable endeavor. Why hasn't more been available about this entire idea? Why hasn't the media done more to investigate the proposal? This is a huge undertaking that will require the county to hire more employees and create more financial obligations we taxpayers don't need in an economy that is still in the doldrums.
Under the current situation, Covanta has operated the plant successfully for the past 20 years. Covanta provides Fairfax County a low price, about $26 to $33 a ton, to handle trash -- one of the lowest prices in the region. Owning and operating a trash incinerator is not something Fairfax County is equipped to do. Covanta has that expertise -- the county does not.
I have read that those who support the purchase make the point that it will give the county more control and that the county can do it better. Why is that necessary? There's also the argument that the cost of trash disposal will be lower 20 years from now when the plant is likely to be paid off. How do we know that's the case when the county has told us nothing? That's speculative at best. A waste-to-energy facility is something you never completely pay off because of the continuing maintenance and replacement costs. Who are we kidding?
We should all oppose this expansion of the county government. It's ill-advised at this critical point in time. We need more information and we need the taxpayers' input through referendum or other means. The expenditure of $400 million is no small issue and it should not be left to the Board of Supervisors alone. It's our money and we should have a say in whether it's spent!
Ron Corso, Vienna