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Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday voiced support for a move that would expand the county's central landfill by permanently turning over operations to a national solid waste contractor, starting with a 20-year deal worth an estimated $547 million.

In their first formal look at the proposal, members of the Board of Supervisors touted its benefits for garbage customers and taxpayers while opponents led by organized labor representatives called out its risks.

The agreement is said to be the largest single public-private contract in county history and it sparked a nearly four-hour hearing Tuesday with two dozen speakers weighing in on both sides.

Chief among the benefits is a rate system with built-in caps that supporters say would avoid the steep hikes imposed by the county, averaging about 10 percent each year over the past decade.

"We know where we've been," said board Chairman David Rabbitt. "What we're trying to do is stop that trend going forward."

Under private operations, rates would be capped at 90 percent of the rise in annual consumer price index or 3.5 percent, with some exceptions for fuel costs, natural disasters and changes in law.

Other benefits supervisors noted: a $60 million landfill expansion aimed to end long-distance trucking of local garbage under way since 2005, when water quality concerns led to a five-year closure of the Mecham Road site west of Cotati; new programs to increase recycling and recover commercial food waste; and guarantees by the private operator -- Arizona-based Republic Services, the nation's second largest garbage contractor -- to assume all current and future liability for the 42-year-old landfill, including $52 million in closure and post-closure assurances.

Final landfill rates are not set, but the initial impact on curbside garbage service is projected to be a 2 percent to 3 percent increase, or about 30 to 60 cents per month on the average household bill, according to the county.

"This (deal) does everything we want it to," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who led an advisory group of elected county and city leaders that shaped the deal in public meetings over the past three years.

The landfill and five county-owned waste transfer stations would remain in public hands. The hybrid approach -- only the latest in a series of county moves to outsource services in recent years -- is a nod to the county's controversial and ultimately failed attempt to sell the landfill to Republic four years ago.

Critics from organized labor say the private operations deal is not much different. Environmental problems at Republic sites across the country show the $8 billion company can't be trusted, opponents said.

"They only fix it when they get sued," said Lathe Gill, area director for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents most of the 26 affected county landfill jobs.

Michael Caprio, a Northern California-based area president for Republic Services, defended the company's record in Sonoma County and elsewhere. He said the cases raised by critics were dated.

"We've shown the ability to stand behind our commitments," Caprio said.

At least 15 of the affected workers will be hired by Republic. Salaries for cashiers, who make up most of the group, would start at $20 an hour, a Republic manager said, comparable to county wages for the job.

Other landfill workers are set to land in open jobs in the county's public works division, county officials said.

Under a subcontract with Republic, the Santa Rosa-based Ratto Group of Companies, the county's dominant trash hauler, would operate all of the transfer stations and develop a new $5 million material-sorting facility at the landfill.

Ratto already operates four transfer sites, something it has done for years. Republic has run the landfill under an interim deal with the county since late 2010.

Many of the groups that opposed the 2009 sale have come forward in support of the long-term deal. Business interests say it taps technical expertise and economic efficiencies in the private sector. Environmental leaders say it sets up strong requirements for additional recycling and reporting of carbon emissions.

Those reports would be more frequent and include presentations before the joint city-county Waste Management Agency under changes requested Tuesday by Supervisors Mike McGuire and Susan Gorin.

"I applaud your emphasis on greenhouse gas reductions," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign.

The county and local cities have long been in a standoff over how to address liabilities for the central landfill and pay for roughly $40 million in post-closure upkeep for seven former dumps in the area.

The deal with Republic would clear that hurdle, provide rate protection that cities wanted for their customers and offload costs for an "environmental issue we couldn't afford to fix," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who along with Zane voted against the 2009 sale.

"I think this is a good deal for taxpayers, the county and partnering cities," said McGuire.

Some neighbors of the landfill have opposed the expansion over concerns about odor, traffic and noise. Roger Larsen, a resident of the nearby Happy Acres subdivision, called the 170-acre site the "stone hung around the neck" of his neighborhood.

"I can't entertain at my house or in my backyard," he said.

Republic officials said they would continue to work with neighbors to reduce impacts.

Other local solid waste contractors sought assurance they would not be pushed out of the business.

"At this point we small haulers don't have a hope and prayer," said Lee Pierce, a representative of Industrial Carting, a debris box company, and Global Materials Recovery Services, the Santa Rosa recycling firm.

Supervisors directed county staff to explore the possibility of encouraging local subcontracts by Republic and Ratto.

The proposed agreement is set to return to the Board of Supervisors April 23 for another round of public discussion and a final decision. An approval would set in motion decisions by local cities to commit their garbage to the deal, a vital element to the plan.

You can reach Staff WriterBrett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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