WCS pushing Andrews election

If measure fails, project could face delay

April 10, 2009
Odessa American Online

Tough times have led to a tough decision for Andrews County voters.

A proposal on the May 9 ballot will determine if the county is allowed to issue up to $75 million in general obligation bonds for Waste Control Specialists, which would use the money to build a low-level radioactive waste disposal site that it received a license for in January.

"In today's economy, we are unable to get traditional funding for that $75 million," Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald said. "About the only thing that hasn't dried up are municipal bonds. There's a good market for that."

If the proposal passes, Waste Control would put up a total of $500 million in assets of the company and parent company Valhi Inc. to securitize the bond, McDonald said. That would include all Waste Control stock.

McDonald said the county would only go through with the process of issuing the bonds if it reaches a satisfactory agreement to protect taxpayers. Among the key assets would be the disposal and byproduct licenses, which could be sold to one of Waste Control's competitors.

The bonds wouldn't likely impact the county's tax rate, because Waste Control would prepay $6 million to $7 million each year into an escrow account as part of a 30-year loan package, McDonald said. The loan would be paid back at around a 7 percent interest rate.

If the proposal passes, construction on the project could begin as soon as June, McDonald said. That would mean 120 construction jobs for the 13 months until it is complete.

Once finished, the facility would bring 75 full-time jobs, plus another 60-or-so "support" jobs," he said.

"It's a lot of jobs," he said. "It's a lot of economic impact."

If it doesn't pass, McDonald said the project would face an "indefinite delay."

"The project's not going away, but we'll have to wait until the credit markets come back," he said.

Because Waste Control pays 5 percent of its gross revenues in fees to the county, McDonald said that getting the project started could bring in $4 million to Andrews during the portion of 2010 after it's completed. In 2011, that number could increase to $10 million and rise to $15 million by 2012.

Though he wouldn't say if he would vote for or against the proposal, Wesley Burnett, Andrews economic development director, said he supports Waste Control, but would've liked more time between Andrews County commissioners approving the proposal to go on the ballot March 23 and the actual election May 9.

"The project and the jobs will be great," he said. "I wish we didn't have to go down this road, but we do."

The $225 million Waste Control has invested in the community over the years has made Burnett feel better about Waste Control being able to repay the money, he said.

"I believe I'm getting more confident on that as far as the guarantees," he said.

Andrews County Judge Richard Dolgener said he's limited about what he could say about the issue by laws prohibiting campaigning by public officials.

"I can't really speculate or say how good it's going to be," he said.

But Dolgener did say that, if the bond does pass, the county would merely be given authority to issue bonds. After the election, commissioners could still opt to back out of the deal if it determines it isn't right after negotiations.

"You've got a pot of soup," he said. "You don't really turn on the fire until after the election. We're kind of cutting the stew meat right now."

Elna Christopher, spokeswoman for the Austin-based Texas Association of Counties, said that officials do have to be careful not to campaign in bond elections.

"It gets interesting down here when anti-tax groups say, 'All you have to do is go out and tell the people why you need it,' - well you can't," she said.

And county judges can be even more limited in what they can say about elections because of judicial ethics requirements, Christopher said.

Christopher said a project like Waste Control's can have advantages over incentives like tax abatements, where the county has no guarantee of seeing the money again.

"That's a great thing because the taxpayers will get their money back," she said.

Waste Control owns 14,400 acres about 30 miles west of Andrews.

The addition would include two new pits, one for low-level nuclear waste acquired in a federal agreement, the other waste from a compact with Vermont and Texas, Dolgener said.

"A lot of it's dirt and different things people have to clean up, not rods from power plants," he said.

The company would be eligible for part of $6 billion in federal stimulus funds to be used for cleaning up U.S. Department of Energy sites, Dolgener said.

So if the feds will give Waste Control money for cleanup, why couldn't it borrow stimulus money to pay for expanding the site, as Summit Power Group is seeking to do with a proposed clean coal plant in Penwell?

"They tried to, but Congress wouldn't do it," Dolgener said.

The company tried every avenue possible to get funding, he said.

"They got the door slammed in their face," Dolgener said.

Melodye Pryor of Andrews, a longtime Waste Control opponent, said the county shouldn't be stuck bailing out a private company.

"If they're not a good risk for financial institutions, since they're a multimillion dollar company, what makes them a good risk for us?" she said.

She also questioned why Waste Control is footing the bill for the vote.

"If a Democrat or a Republican paid for an election, people would say they bought it," she said.

But Dolgener said it's typical for an entity like a school or hospital district that's seeking funding to pay for an election, so the county doesn't have to pick up the cost.

"It kind of looks goofy, but it's not out of the ordinary," he said.


Early voting

>> When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 27-May 1, May 4 and 5.

>> Where: Community Center, 106th NE Sixth St., Andrews.

General Election

>> When: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 9.

>> Where: James Roberts Center, 855 E. Broadway St.

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