Region legislators seek tighter leash on Lake County solid waste district

2013-01-26T20:00:00Z 2013-01-27T23:41:04Z Region legislators seek tighter leash on Lake County solid waste districtMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
January 26, 2013 8:00 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | Two former Lake County solid waste officials are using their newly acquired legislative pulpit to pursue reforms of their former waste management district board.

As one of his first legislative acts, Indiana House Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, has authored a bill that would strip the Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board of several powers, including the ability to adopt contracts, construct or operate solid waste facilities or enter into lease agreements for the rental of solid waste facilities. Niemeyer is a former Lake County councilman who served as the waste district's chairman last year.

Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, who also recently left the waste district board after being elected to the Statehouse, co-authored the bill.

Niemeyer said he wants the three-member Lake County Board of Commissioners to have final approval of such matters, not the 27-member solid waste district board, which is made up of municipal and county elected officials.

He said the bill, in part, was inspired by the controversial trash-to-ethanol contract adopted by the board more than four years ago that has yet to provide the consolidated county trash-processing facility it set out to provide.

In their last act on the solid waste district board in November, Niemeyer and Slager were among eight board members who unsuccessfully voted to end the trash-to-ethanol contract after a private developer, Powers Energy of America, repeatedly failed to secure financing, apply for permits or secure land on which to build the facility.

Niemeyer and Slager said decisions made by the waste board potentially can encumber county taxpayers. Therefore, contracts pursued by the district's board should require approval of the county's executive branch, which is composed of three commissioners, they said.

Jeff Langbehn, executive director of the Lake County waste district, said he believes enough checks and balances already exist in the 27-member district board that must vote on and approve all contracts.

Langbehn also pointed out that one of the three county commissioners — currently Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point — already sits on the waste district board.

"I really need to reserve judgment on this (bill)," Langbehn told The Times on Friday. "It seems it would take the decision-making authority away from 27 board members and effectively put it with one person.

"I think that's kind of scary myself."

Langbehn also noted that because the bill only applies to the Lake County Solid Waste Management District — and not the dozens of other waste districts in the state — it could be considered special legislation, which is prohibited by the state Constitution.

Slager acknowledged the bill may require some rewording to possibly make it apply to other waste districts.

But he said the spirit of the bill should remain intact.

"Putting through any kind of contract or other issue that could encumber the county with a potentially substantial obligation — without having the county's executive approval — seems disjointed," Slager said.

Niemeyer acknowledged some wording of the bill may require revisions. The legislation received a first reading in the House on Tuesday and currently is assigned to the House Committee on Environmental Affairs.

This isn't the first legislative attempt to reform Indiana solid waste management districts.

A bill that would have stripped state solid waste management districts of their ability to impose property taxes failed last year on a tie vote in the Indiana Senate.

Former Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, said she sponsored last year's bill in part because of the bloated $5 million annual budget and high executive salaries of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District.

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