Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – City officials’ proposal to buy and close the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator got a mixed reception Tuesday night, with some residents expressing concern about its impact on jobs and taxes and others urging the City Council to remove the unpopular plant.

At a public hearing at City Theater, residents were split on the plan for the city to buy the trash incinerator from its parent company, Casella Waste Systems, for $6.65 million over the next 20 years. The hearing was the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on the plan, which councilors will vote on by the end of this month.

City officials last week announced the plan to buy the trash-to-energy plant, which has raised complaints about odors and truck traffic since it opened 25 years ago downtown in the city’s mill district.

Under the agreement between Biddeford and Casella, the city would buy the plant on Lincoln Street 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 plant’s smokestack, which holds up cellphone towers that generate nearly $150,000 a year in fees. The money would help to cover the purchase price.

The city plans to pay for the deal with revenue from the cellphone towers and taxes generated from a special district established at Biddeford Crossing — the retail complex near the Maine Turnpike — and the downtown mill area.

Annual payments would start at $150,000 a year and climb to $350,000 a year.

The purchase would add 1.8 cents to Biddeford’s property tax rate in 2012-13, followed by small increases over the next 19 years, said Brian Phinney, the city’s environmental code officer.

Despite assurances from city officials that the plan wouldn’t cause a large property tax increase, nearly half of the 34 people who spoke at the hearing expressed concerns about taxes and lost jobs.

Casella employs about 75 people at MERC, some of whom could move within the company if the sale is approved.

Gene Sanborn, a Biddeford resident who has worked at MERC for 11 years, said he is concerned that he and his father-in-law will lose their good-paying jobs.

That would put them in a position to lose their home and move out of the city, he said. He said he doubts he could find a job that pays close to the $23 per hour he earns now.

William Adams, another MERC employee, said many “starry-eyed” people envision a bustling downtown with the plant gone, but he wonders how long it would take for new development to offset the loss of about $840,000 in property taxes from MERC.

Besides, he said, Casella seems interested in moving out of Biddeford without the deal. “If Casella wants to leave, why are we giving them a parting gift?” he asked.

A handful of residents urged councilors to send the issue to referendum so residents can decide. The council is scheduled to hear more public comment and take an initial vote on July 17, followed by a final decision July 31.

Supporters of the plan were enthusiastic about the chance to remove what they see as an obstacle to redevelopment and investment downtown.

Holly Culloton, a downtown business owner, urged the council to complete the sale for the “health and well-being of the community.”

“For the past 25 years MERC has been a negative for our community,” she said.

Nathan Szanton, a Portland developer who renovated the Mill at Saco Falls in a building next to MERC, said there is “no question” that removing the incinerator would attract new development.

“I think the downtown has a much brighter future without MERC,” Szanton said. “The gains will far outweigh the loss of property taxes from MERC.”

Former Mayor Joanne Twomey, who fought for years against MERC and participated in a task force that tried to negotiate its departure — made an emotional plea for councilors to complete the sale.

Holding letters from doctors about the potential danger of toxic air emissions, she pleaded loudly for councilors to consider the overall health of the community.

“You have the responsibility to do the right thing for once in the history of Biddeford,” she said.

Mayor Alan Casavant said he recognizes that the issue is “very emotional,” but the closure of MERC “rewrites the story line” for Biddeford. He encouraged residents to call or write to city councilors to share their opinions before the council meeting July 17.

The purchase and sale agreement and related documents are on the city’s website, www.biddefordmaine.org.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

UNDER THE DEAL all that will remain standing is the smokestack, which holds up cellphone towers that generate nearly $150,000 a year in fees.