City takes over compost facility

The City of Whitehorse's plans to directly operate its compost facility is "a recipe for disaster," according to the contractor who until recently oversaw the project.

The City of Whitehorse’s plans to directly operate its compost facility is “a recipe for disaster,” according to the contractor who until recently oversaw the project.

Garret Gillespie of Boreal Compost Enterprise says he doesn’t believe the city has the expertise or resources to see the compost operation succeed. He’s predicting that many customers will flee.

“The city is facing too many technical issues and won’t be able to fill the void left by the departure of BCE,” he said.

“There’s no one in the city that can talk about compost with any kind of practical knowledge because they don’t use compost themselves. They’re not listening to expert advice rendered to them, namely by me and a colleague of mine, who have the city’s best interest at heart.”

The city, meanwhile, contends that it’s just making a prudent financial decision, after the latest bid to run the facility came in far above the city’s own estimates for how much it would cost to staff the operation directly.

David Albisser, the city’s waste and water services manager, said the municipality didn’t want to take over the compost facility, but had little choice.

“I have a lot of respect for Garret, he’s led the way and laid a path that I wish we could continue our co-operation on,” he said.

“Unfortunately I just can’t do that at any price. I can’t justify increases in the facility operational cost without a very good reason.”

Earlier this year, BCE told the city its $195,000 annual operating service agreement wasn’t enough to cover expenses and said any extension of the agreement would have to include a fee increase.

Its two-year contract, which ended in October, also saw the city receive 20 per cent of the finished compost for use in its own projects and a 66 per cent cut of all compost sales.

The city issued a public tender on Sept. 5 but received only one bid, from Adorna Landscaping. The bid included Gillespie as manager of the facility.

The bid price, $312,000, was 60 per cent higher than the exisiting service agreemnent, with further increases to $357,000 and then $375,000 the following years.

When the city concluded it could directly operate the facility for less than the bid price, it cancelled the tender and directed administration to prepare a budget submission for city staff.

Based on estimates, the cost for the city to run the facility would be $276,100 next year, excluding sales and marketing.

“It’s very sad they put forward a budget that makes our bid look really ogre-like,” Gillespie said, noting that his bid included advertising costs.

Albisser said the additional costs went beyond the scope of the tender.

Boreal’s operation was certified as organic by the Centre for Systems Integration. Since the certification follows the operator, the city would have to re-apply for it. Gillespie predicts the city will have a tough time receiving its own certification.

“It’ll be extremely difficult for them to get it,” he said. “I just made it look easy, but it was still difficult. We could have run the facility for $240,000 if we’d followed the tender to the letter.”

Albisser said attaining organic certification is a rare feat in the North, let alone in the country, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

“We’ll pursue the certification. We have systems in place that Garret set up that will aid us in doing that,” he said.

“I really don’t think there’s any concern about not being able to attain the high standard that Garret set.”

According to an administrative report Albisser prepared, the city estimates it can make $24,000 in compost sales next year alone. That figure is based on prior sales when the city ran the facility, he said.

Gillespie contends these targets are “in the realm of fiction.” He says sales would have to quadruple for the facility to function normally, otherwise compost begins to build up and cause problems.

In order to achieve that, the city would have to invest heavily in trucks, “and they have to come from somewhere,” he said.

Gillespie estimated it already costs $60,000 a year to market and distribute compost, but he says that could jump to $150,000 for the next few years, in order to cover expansion and service costs.

The city will sell compost from the gatehouse at the facility but won’t deliver it to customers, like BCE used to.

Gillespie said that’s exactly what people want, however.

“I get calls and emails every day from people who are worried about this,” he said.

“People expect convenience and delivery, and that’s what we gave them. If people are expected to go to the dump to get compost, there’s going to be very low participation.”

The city might not have steady sales of compost yet but with big projects such as Whistle Bend, there’s a very high demand for it, said Albisser. There are plans to approach various local retailers to see if they’re interested in carrying the city’s product.

Albisser said he anticipates the city will sell all of its compost eventually.

Gillespie said he doesn’t wish any ill will towards the city or its plan. After being involved in this project for six years, he knows the challenges the city is facing, he said.

“I’m the biggest supporter of the city’s compost program,” he said.

“I’m probably the most knowledgeable person when it comes to this. I have a master’s degree in agricultural engineering and I’ve been composting since I was two years old.

“I know the challenges the city is facing. I find it frustrating to see demand on the street growing and now, being nipped in the bud because the city won’t be able to load a pickup truck.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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