Critics like Sally White are unhappy that an acclaimed division of Marion County government has been “disemboweled to pay for the Courthouse Square fiasco.”  White, retired after teaching science for 21 years, says that the income, reserves and budget for Marion County’s Environmental Services have been plundered, and that County Commissioners have presided over the matter with indifference.

“The problem is that {Marion County] Board of Commissioners started paying for county expenses – money that should have gone to a bond – from Environmental Services,” says Bruce Wadleigh, owner of Barnwood Naturals, a Salem building design firm that handles 100% reclaimed lumber.  “The money should not be swiped from Environmental Services – or the environment, for that matter.”

Environmental Services is the division of Public Works that performs a wide variety of functions in Marion County, including managing landfills, recycling, education in public schools and the EarthWISE certification program that brings business benefits to the region.

Environmental Services has earned revenue for the county for years.  This money comes from sources that include charges for medical and construction waste disposal, fees for recovering metals from ash and its sale of the electricity it produces 13.5 megawatts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from burning garbage from trash incineration and sells to Portland General Electric.  The lion’s share of its income comes from “tipping fees,” the bill individuals and garbage haulers pay to dump.

The department has been so successful earning money from these “solid waste fees” that it boasted substantial reserves for years.

Historically, funds collected by the county from solid waste fees could only be used for solid waste management-related activities, which meant that Environmental Services used its income itself, to fund a wide variety of non-income producing services to the county.

But in 2009, the Marion County Board of Commissioners changed the law and made Environmental Services electrical revenues only available to the board to do with as they saw fit.  Seven million was taken from the department’s revenue and used to pay for repairs and lawsuits associated with the improperly constructed County Courthouse Square in downtown Salem.

Funds have been diverted ever since, so that currently Environmental Services faces the distinct prospect of losing almost every service it provides that does not directly earn money.

At stake are programs and employees that advocates for Environmental Services say, while not expressly “income producing,” bring significant value to our region.

One program, EarthWISE Certification for local businesses, has produced benefits for employers ranging from The Salem Convention Center to the building firm Barnwood Naturals.  EarthWISE certification means that the Environmental Services department has ensured the business practices “green” behavior such as waste reduction, composting, recycling, material reuse and energy efficiency.

It’s good for business

“The sole reason I located my business in Marion County is the EarthWISE Certification program,” says Bruce Wadleigh, owner of Barnwood Naturals, whose clients include many Salem businesses as well as upscale restaurants in New York and Florida.  “EarthWISE Certification has helped me grow my business by 200% over the past 5 years.”

Chrissie Bertsch, General Manager of the Salem Convention Center, says certification helps her bottom line as well.  “A lot of clients would ask if we composted, if we were green, and we worked really hard to get our certification in place.”  Environmental Services helped the Convention Center become LEED certified as well, Bertsch adds, and assisted with “a pilot program to recycle all the food before and after an event… So we definitely attract clients who celebrate green practices.”

Other Environmental Services efforts have included a recycling coordinator at Salem-Keizer schools and the “Green Schools” program.  When she was teaching, White says that “with the help of a stipend awarded to Green Schools,” her students learned “environmental projects such as vermicomposting (composting with earthworms)” and practices such as ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle.’

Laurie Aguirre, Second Grade teacher and Environmental Coordinator at Forest Ridge Elementary School, similarly praises Environmental Services work with area children, describing field trips to an Earth Walk “which exists because of this department” that she says amazes parents and children alike, and activities such as “waste audits with the students, and a whole host of other opportunities.”

A Master Recycler program established by Environmental Services has inspired hundreds of area residents, as has a Green Award which was this year conferred on SAIF Corporation.  Also vital to Environmental Services has been continual public education, so that people know about and are reminded of habits that improve and enrich the community.  Environmental Services collects batteries, florescent tubes and heavy metals that are toxic in landfill.  It teaches and manages recycling; because of its efforts of the department, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality has recognized Marion County as leading the state in waste reduction and recovery three out of the last five years.

Jim Green, President of the Board of the Friends of Straub Environmental Learning Center, who became a Master Recycler in 2009, describes the department as “one of the best of its kind in the nation; very effective.”
But the temptation to use the income Environmental Services generates, while slashing the services it provides, has proven difficult for Marion County Commissioners to resist.  One of the first to go was the school Recycling Coordinator position.

When White learned of this, and discovered that additional cuts were coming, including “the complete gutting or elimination of the Master Recycling Program and its affiliated services to schools, businesses and the community at large,” she decided to sit in on a July 24 budget meeting attended by Marion County Commissioners Janet Carlson, Patti Milne and Sam Brentano.

What she heard upset her

“There is no use in beating around the bush,” she says.  “I learned that the County Commissioners needed the monies that funded Environmental Services to cover their overt appropriation of funds to bring to code the Courthouse Square building.”
Commissioners expressed willingness to cut more Environmental Services staff and services in the future.  “They want to use money [for other county departments] that had been acquired by the very same staff whose positions they deemed unnecessary,” says White.  “Why don’t they just propose a bond instead of ruining this valuable department?”

“Let’s go after the people that caused the problems at Courthouse Square in the first place,” Wadleigh says, “or pay the cost from a bond.  We need the people of Environmental Services to keep working out there to protect us from mercury and fluorescent lights going in the ground.”

“Costs should be borne by the contractors who screwed up in the first place, not the County,” Green believes, though he’d be willing to pay more for his garbage hauling to pay for the department.  “It would be a tremendous loss to our community to make… cuts to Environmental Services.”

White suggests that citizens contact commissioners “and tell them that we know of, and appreciate the services rendered by Environmental Services.  And that we do not want to turn back the clock in these areas.”
”Commissioners, she says, need to “find another way to take care of their misuse and misappropriation of funds.”

Repeated unsuccessful requests were made to Marion County for comment on this story.  We continue to invite their perspective.