BROOKSVILLE — After several years of discussion, many hours of staff time trying to negotiate a contract and questions about viability, the Hernando County Commission this week voted unanimously to turn down a contract with Freedom Energy Hernando LLC and abandoned the idea of having the county spearhead a waste-to-energy program.
With several commissioners previously having expressed support for Freedom and the concept, some residents made a last-ditch effort at Tuesday's commission meeting to stop the proposed 20-year contract, under which Freedom Energy would have built a plant on 13 acres of county land at the landfill, then processed the majority of the county's solid waste into pellets that could have been used as fuel.
Lynn Gruber-White of Ridge Manor raised concerns that the county was handing over valuable public resources, including land, the landfill scales, the recycling program and the convenience centers, without the county getting any stake in the incoming revenue.
"This is not a good deal for the county at all,'' Gruber-White said.
Brooksville resident Richard Ross raised a caution flag regarding the provision in the contract that allowed the parties to change the terms in the future.
"That would guarantee that the $39 per ton could go to hell in a handbasket anytime it needed to,'' Ross said, referring to the contract language that would have awarded Freedom Energy $39 in tipping fees per ton of waste up to 100,000 tons per year.
Resident Anthony Palmieri said he thought from the beginning that Freedom Energy was the wrong company and that he opposed a proposal from someone with no track record and no guaranteed buyer for the end product, the fuel pellets.
Palmieri presented commissioners with public records from Lake County indicating that Freedom Energy chief executive officer Nat Mundy had some financial issues in the past, including more than $41,000 in federal tax liens as recently as last year. Palmieri asked commissioners, "Don't we require some kind of financial stability from the people we deal with?''
Jake Varn, the attorney for Freedom Energy, took issue with some of the public statements, noting that many of the issues had been hashed out in public meetings and private discussions with county staffers and that Freedom Energy, not the county, was on the hook for all of the liability in the proposed operation.
"We think this is a good contract,'' Varn said. "The county is not at risk.''
Mundy responded to questions about his financial situation by saying that he is good with the IRS and that all of the responsibilities, and the risk, rest with him. He said he would build the ground-breaking plant, arrange for the financing and have the markets set up to sell his product.
"Why not Hernando?'' he asked. "Why not now?''
But even Commissioner Steve Champion, who previously had voiced interest in the waste-to-energy idea, said Tuesday that he was more interested in the concept than the final product, the lease with Freedom Energy.
"There are too many holes for me to support it,'' he said.
Champion said he believed the county had acted in good faith in negotiations and that he had followed through with his promise that he would not be led by anyone who was part of the county's "good old boy'' system.
At the outset, the selection of Freedom Energy over another competitor had prompted criticism because of political overtones of support by different influential business leaders in the community.
Commissioner John Mitten said he based his vote against the contract on his "fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers'' and the fact that, with 80 years of life left in the landfill, there was no pressing need for the county to pursue the alternate waste disposal system.
Commissioner John Allocco made the motion to deny the contract and agreed with a request by Champion to make it clear that the vote meant that the county was not going to pursue the waste-to-energy idea with any of the other companies that had presented proposals.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.