Landfill settlement still weighs on taxpayer wallets

2013-06-16T00:00:00Z Landfill settlement still weighs on taxpayer walletsBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
June 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CROWN POINT | The Lake County Solid Waste Management District will cost county taxpayers more than $7.4 million in public debt payments over the next 16 years.

It's the price of peace between county officials and a developer the county once wooed to turn more than 560 acres of south county farmland into what would have been the Hickory Hills landfill. It could have been a revenue-producer for both business and local government.

"It's the only loan we've ever had," Jeff Langbehn, executive of the waste district, said last week. He said the loan has been in place 10 years since the county settled a lawsuit filed by Hickory Hills officials.

The waste district is one of 66 in the state created two decades ago to manage the growing stream of municipal waste and encourage recycling. The district, which employs nine people, has an annual budget approaching $5 million, according to the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

Last year, it spent at least $1.5 million on payroll and professional services, distributed $2.6 million in grants to city and town recycling programs and the rest on miscellaneous supplies and services.

That includes more than $440,000 annually to pay down the debt, which now stands at $5.8 million in principal. By 2029, the remaining interest payments will amount to approximately $1.6 million.

That debt arose from the county's decision in the mid-1990s to accept Hickory Hill's offer to collect and dispose of municipal waste in a landfill they planned to build near 173rd and Grand Boulevard, east of the Interstate 65-Indiana 2 interchange near Lowell.

However, county officials had a change of heart when rural county residents began protesting the landfill represented a danger to the underground aquifer on which they rely for drinking water and crop irrigation.

County officials didn't give the landfill the green light, and a lawsuit ensued. Hickory Hills initially demanded $200 million in damages for lost business but later pared that figure down to $60 million.

The matter was set to go to trial in February 2003 when the county agreed to give Hickory Hills $9 million to drop the suit. It needed to borrow most of that amount.

Langbehn, who was a defendant in the lawsuit, said he believed the county might have won at trial, but there was no guarantee of that outcome. A loss could have plunged the county into even more debt.

The solid waste district now faces the threat of a new lawsuit from Earl Powers, a downstate developer who recently claimed he has suffered more than $1 billion in damages since the county terminated its earlier contract with him to provide municipal waste to fuel a proposed factory to convert garbage into ethanol.

County officials have said Powers never obtained financing for the alternative fuel plant.

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