A hard day’s night

This evening, a 30-year saga in Biddeford may finally come to a close. The Biddeford City Council will vote in just a couple of hours on a proposal that calls for purchasing and closing the MERC facility, a trash-to-energy facility located in our downtown area.

The 7 p.m. meeting will be held at the Biddeford Middle School.

Before I go any further, you probably already know, but it bears repeating that I provide professional consulting services to MERC’s parent company, Casella Waste Systems.

But  I am also a Biddeford taxpayer who grew up in this community, and I have been vocal about this issue for a long time, years before I provided consulting services to MERC’s parent company.

With that bit of disclosure out of the way, I am hoping that regardless of how you feel about the pending agreements, you will participate vigorously in the public process.

As the editor of the Biddeford-Saco Courier, I reluctantly encouraged a YES vote on the 2005 referendum that called for Biddeford and Saco to enter into an agreement to buy and eventually close MERC for $30 million, contingent on the state providing $10 million of funding.

Today, the proposed purchase price is considerably lower, but that does NOT mean there will be no tax impacts. As a taxpayer, I am acutely aware of the difficult economy and the struggles our community faces in the days, weeks and years ahead.

But please allow me to be clear, there will be a tax impact because of MERC, whether these agreements are signed or rejected.

For example, according to analysis provided by the city of Biddeford, the tax impact of this deal would represent a $77/year tax increase for a homeowner with a property valued at $200,000. If this deal is rejected, the same homeowner would see an annual tax increase of roughly $66/year, when considering the fact that we would still need a new waste handling contract and higher tipping fees.

The city’s financial data and more information about this proposal can be found on the city’s website http://biddefordmaine.org and lots more information, including downloadable copies of the agreements and a recent media archive about the proposal can be found at a website hosted by the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce at http://closemercplan.org

Is getting rid of MERC, its stigma, the lingering concerns about potential health and environmental impacts and the opportunity for vigorous and robust downtown development worth $11/year (91 cents a month)? I say YES.

It’s the middle of July, and we all have things we would rather be doing than attending a public hearing, but this is our fourth bite at this apple. The state is watching; our neighbors are watching. It is now time for us to ask ourselves, what are we going to do to solve our problem?

The loss of tax revenue will be significantly offset (not completely) by increases from state revenue sharing, increase in state education subsidies and decreases in our county taxes.

We will still have a tipping rate well below (roughly 50%) what is paid by our neighbors and many other communities.

The purchase is being offered at zero interest over 20 years; and the tax impacts are significantly reduced in the first few years as our community works to redevelop the area and attract new businesses. The purchase price will be buffered by cell phone tower contracts and TIF revenues.

The recycling contract that is part of this deal is less than what our neighbors across the river are paying for the same service.

Financially speaking, it’s difficult to imagine us getting a better deal, but I encourage you to do your own research and make up your own mind.

During last week’s council workshop meeting, members of the city’s negotiating team made one point that everyone should consider: Casella intends to get out of the incineration business, with or without this deal. Their business model focuses on recycling.

Biddeford is being given first offer. Another operator could decide to use the facility as a biomass plant (construction and demolition debris), or as a waste plant; but will they have the financial capacity and resources that Casella has? Will they seek a property tax abatement, considering a bargain selling price?

Make no mistake, I am also worried about MERC’s employees, but we have seen this community rebound before; and are we prepared to sacrifice our future and potential for roughly 75 jobs that will soon be ending, one way or another?

The bottom line? Will  Biddeford be better off with or without MERC operating in the heart of our downtown? Answer that question for yourself, and please take an active role in this hugely important issue for our community and its future.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, July 17, and I invite your questions or feedback.

Related: Fear and loathing in Biddeford

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