Something Stinks

Composting contract just another in long line of county smells

Solway residents complain that the mulch facility run by Natural Resources Recovery stinks. But it may not smell any worse than the new 10-year contract the county may sign with the firm.

For almost a year we have heard scandal after scandal revealing Knox County government to be, financially speaking, out of control. A lack of proper procedures, violations of policies, and a general "do what the hell you want" attitude have resulted in three audits about travel, purchasing cards, and a hospitality fund that have yet to be resolved.

Now we have discovered that the county has had a contract with NRR to operate a compost facility in West Knox County. They were required to pay the county a portion of the proceeds once they processed green waste (treated with sewer sludge) and sold it to the public as mulch.

During the process of awarding a new contract, Knox County Commission has discovered the company has not paid the county its share for use of the multi-million dollar facility it took over in 2002. There are various people in county government who say that the facility was having a hard time, the county didn't generate enough branches and sticks and other green waste as it predicted, and that the head of the solid waste department of the county simply told the company they didn't have to pay the county regardless of what the contract said.

Solid Waste Director John Evans, who died in December, isn't available to defend himself. Can we blame the company for not paying if no one in county government required them to pay the fees for five years?

Commissioner Paul Pinkston would like to know why there aren't procedures in place to notify commission when some county employee tells a company they don't have to make payments due in their contract. Commissioner Scott Moore wants to know why the performance bond required in the contract was allowed to lapse. No one can find the bond, no one knows who released the company from the requirement, and commission was told at a workshop that it is just a big mystery.

Although the company describes the previous contract as a proposition that didn't generate enough revenue to pay the county its share, they would like to enter into a 10-year contract to continue, with an option for 10 more.

The Louisiana company certainly has home-field advantage, as the operator of the existing facility. They gave commissioners a tour of the facility and lobbied them to continue the contract two days before a gag order was issued. No other bidders are allowed to talk to county commissioners during the contract awarding period.

NRR has an advisory board of 10 members and the list (in its bid packet) includes Tom Salter, head of the Knox County Solid Waste Department, and Lynne Liddington, Knox County Air Quality Manager. These two also served on the committee that evaluated the bids for the new contract—they gave NRR high marks. (The board also includes Solway Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert. We assume Lambert will recuse himself when the contract comes before commission for a vote.)

Salter replaced Evans. His previous job was executive director of Keep Tennessee Beautiful. He wrote a letter to Knoxville at one point recommending they give their waste contract to NRR, because they had contributed money and in-kind services to his organization.

Complicating all this is the fact that Knox County is suing NRR for fraud. A private citizen had sued the company, and the county law director named Special Counsel Dean Farmer to review the case. Now Farmer has joined the suit representing Knox County.

NRR is in violation of the written contract and they are being sued by an attorney hired by the county. Can anything get any weirder in Knox County government?

Is anybody over there in charge of the multi-million dollar entity known as Knox County government? Does anybody follow the law? Honor contracts? Follow policies, procedures and regulations?