We've had a year of audits demonstrating a lack of control over Knox County finances by Mayor Mike Ragsdale's administration. The mayor has been censured by Knox County Commission.
The contract process for a new operator of the county composting facility in Solway and depositions in a lawsuit against the current contractor also reveal a shocking lack of institutional control. To put it bluntly, if the UT football program operated this way, the NCAA would have given them the death penalty.
This poses problems for the county, but it also presents problems for National Resource Recovery, the company that has had a "contract" to operate the facility for five years. The first issue, as we discussed last week, is that National Resource Recovery has not paid Knox County its share of the revenue from accepting waste at the site. County officials professed to be shocked and surprised the company was told by a county employee there was no need to make the payments.
The contract, spelling out the company and the county's obligations, was pretty much ignored. When problems arose no one decided to go back and re-do the contract or seek County Commission approval for the changes.
Knox County and NRR are suffering the consequences.
The lack of paperwork leaves the issue to be decided by a lawsuit. Were there legitimate reasons to let the company out of the payments, or were the reasons manufactured after the fact to get everyone off the hook—both the company and county officials? That's the issue in the lawsuit.
The late John Evans, director of the solid waste department, allegedly told the company they didn't have to make the payments. The performance bond to enforce the contract was allowed to lapse. A grant to build a second composting facility at Forks of the River was diverted to fix problems with sinkholes at Solway.
When the state complained about brush piles outside the site in Solway, a company was hired to come in and grind up the product and remove it to satisfy the inspector. NRR paid the company $27,500. Evans had a county check cut to reimburse the company for the $27,500. No contract. No purchase order. A bureaucrat in the engineering department had the county issue a check, ignoring all purchasing procedures.
The Solway facility also got paid by utility companies to take what is euphemistically called bio-solids. We would call it human waste or sewer sludge. This material was mixed with mulch to produce a compost product. According to depositions in the lawsuit, First Utility District deposited sewer waste at the site that had not been treated properly and a terrible smell ensued. It was that smell which has led to numerous complaints from nearby residents.
NRR was told not to take any more of this waste, which cut down on its revenue. This is cited as one of the reasons the company was told not to pay Knox County.
All this was going on, and county department heads with oversight of solid waste say they didn't know anything about it. I guess that means Ragsdale's office didn't know about it either.
The depositions also reference another company that has been operating on county property for months without a contract, without written permission and without paying rent.
I don't care which company gets the contract to operate the facility going forward. What should concern us, however, is that a multi-million dollar facility was allowed to be operated by ignoring a contract. Over $27,000 was spent without authorization. Thousands of dollars in potential county revenue was not collected. A company has been allowed to operate on county property without any formal agreement.
It goes on and on.
I would suggest that if NRR is to continue to do business with Knox County, they get a contract in writing and they abide by it. If some bureaucrat tells them it's OK to violate the contract, they need to go talk with the county law department, the mayor's office, and the County Commission.
Then maybe they won't get sued.