BIDDEFORD, Maine — Maine Energy Recovery Co. will be sold to the city for $6.65 million, cease operations and be torn down.
At a special meeting Tuesday, the nine-member City Council voted, with one dissension, to enter into a purchase and sale agreement with Maine Energy.
Once executed, the agreement means the end of the downtown incinerator — and the end of 25 years of bad smells and dozens of trash trucks lumbering through the city to drop off yet another load of garbage. Mayor Alan Casavant has said the sale to the city will ease public health worries related to the plant and also provide a psychological lift, ending the negative stereotype of the city that he said exists statewide.
Tuesday’s vote, taken at the Biddeford Middle School, was almost anticlimactic. There had been much discussion by the council and the public at previous meetings, but only a smattering of city residents turned out for the historic vote.
The council got right down to business, voting quickly, with no discussion, to approve the purchase and sale agreement, approve a new waste handling agreement, and approve a recycling collection and disposal agreement.
Less than 10 minutes after the meeting convened, it was over.
Applause followed, and some hooting and hollering by those who had long waited for such a moment.
Casavant said it was all in the timing; a 2005 attempt to purchase the incinerator, at that time for $30 million, failed at referendum. This time, Maine Energy officials approached the city and said they were interested in getting out of the incinerator business, Casavant said.
“The terms [of the agreement] made it workable,” the mayor said, “and Casella was willing to help us, to allow us to stretch the payments out over time.”
The deal is set to close by Nov. 15. Incineration is to cease within six months of the closing and all but the facility’s smokestack is to be removed within a year.
Payment for the plant, at no interest, will take place over 20 years. The majority of the payments will come from $145,000 in annual revenue from cellphone company leases and about $150,000 annually from a special tax district.
As well as the $6.65 million price tag, the city will lose about $850,000 Maine Energy pays annually in property taxes. About half of the funds are expected to be made up from increased state aid for education and revenue sharing. The rest would come from an increase in the property tax rate.
Casavant said the city would have liked to pay less than $6.65 million, while Casella Waste Systems, Maine Energy’s parent company, probably would have liked a bit more cash. In the end, he said, there was compromise.
“It’s a good agreement,” said Councilor Mike Ready. “And it gives the city 8.5 acres downtown on the river. … It’s a solid and fair price.”
Ready pointed out that Biddeford will pay $55 per ton tipping fees to Maine Energy under the 10-year waste handling agreement, and noted 13 other communities that use the Biddeford incinerator currently pay more than $85 per ton in tipping fees.
Closing Maine Energy “has always been at the top of my agenda,” said Councilor Bob Mills. “I’m very happy.”
Councilor Melissa Bednarowski cast the sole dissenting vote, as she had at the first reading earlier in July.
“[Constituents] in my ward spoke clearly they were not in favor” of the deal, said Bednarowski. She said constituents told her the price tag was too high and would have too much of an impact on their property tax bills.
Some other members of the public were also opposed.
Grady Sexton said there are hidden costs associated with the deal — the contract calls for Maine Energy to demolish the structure to the ground but he wondered about the foundation remaining in place along with the smokestack. It will cost the city to take it down, he said.
Roland Pelletier said a “green” company had expressed interested in buying the incinerator and that he isn’t happy with the sale to the city.
Robert Quattrone Jr., a Maine Energy employee, started a petition drive to put the question of whether the city should buy the property to voters Nov. 6. With 244 signatures certified and more to turn in, he said he’s pressing on with his mission to get 1,942 signatures certified within the next two weeks. If he’s successful, the council would have to take a vote on whether to put the question to referendum — something he said he’s not sure they’d favor, but he plans to carry on nonetheless.
City attorney Keith Jacques has said a referendum question “can’t direct the city to breach a contract.”
A six-year employee of Maine Energy, Quattrone is one of 16 Biddeford residents who work at the downtown incinerator. Altogether, about 80 people work there.
Casella’s plan is to build a trash transfer station in Westbrook, where communities would haul their trash, and then transfer the waste to the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, which Casella operates. Casella will need a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection to dispose of solid waste at Juniper Ridge.
Saco Mayor Mark Johnston and Biddeford Mayor Emeritus Joanne Twomey sat together in the audience during the vote, and stood and cheered once the meeting had adjourned.
“It has been a long time coming,” said Twomey.
“I’m very happy,” said Johnston. “It’s an historic evening.”