Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Gillian Graham firstname.lastname@example.org
BIDDEFORD — The Biddeford Middle School auditorium erupted in applause and cheers as the City Council voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to buy and close the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash-to-energy incinerator by next year.
The 8-1 vote to close the plant came after six months of negotiations between city officials and Casella Waste Systems, the parent company of Maine Energy.
Councilor Melissa Bednarowski cast the lone vote against the plan.
City officials last month announced a plan to buy the plant for $6.65 million over the next 20 years. The plant has generated complaints about odor and truck traffic since it opened 25 years ago in the city's downtown mill district.
About 70 people turned out for the City Council meeting, which was the last opportunity for residents to comment publicly on the plan.
The city will buy the Lincoln Street plant by Nov. 15. The incinerator would stop operating within six months of the purchase and be demolished six months after that.
All that would remain is the smokestack, which holds cellphone antennas that generate $150,000 a year in revenue. That money would be combined with taxes generated from a special tax district established at Biddeford Crossing to cover most of the purchase cost.
The annual payments start at $150,000 a year and climb to $350,000 a year.
The purchase will add 1.8 cents per $1,000 valuation to Biddeford's property tax rate in 2012-13, followed by small tax increases over the next 19 years. The tax bill impact per year over the life of the agreement is $79.35 on a $200,000 home.
As part of the plan, the council also approved a new 10-year waste handling agreement to dispose of its trash, first at Maine Energy and then at a Casella recycling and trash processing plant to be built in Westbrook. Biddeford's fee increases from the current $47 a ton to $55 a ton.
During public comment, the majority of speakers urged the council to support the buyout. Those opposed to the plan questioned the impact on taxes and the loss of about 80 jobs at Maine Energy.
Jessica Quattrone, whose husband, Robert, works at Maine Energy, said her family may have to leave the city if he loses his job.
"There are 80 people who are going to have their lives turned upside down by this purchase," she said.
Resident Denis Rioux, who supports the purchase, said it has "been a long time coming."
"We've seen a lot of good things happen in the mills in the past few years despite this albatross," he said.
Seth Harkness, owner of several apartment buildings and president of the Biddeford Landlord Association, said members of the association see the closure of MERC as a "smart investment" in the city's future.
"I do feel certain that every day there are good prospective contributing members of this community who chose not to live in Biddeford because of the presence of MERC," he said.
While councilors overwhelmingly supported the plan, Councilor Roch Angers said he has reservations about leaving the stack in place, even for the short term.
"I honestly feel there are ways of getting this deal done, doing it right and not have any symbol of that plant there," he said.
Councilor Richard Rhames said the time has come for Biddeford to close MERC and move forward.
"We are at a moment here," he said. "Moments like this don't come along every day. I've waited 25 years for this."
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: email@example.com