by CHRIS ROGERS
At the very end of Shives Road, past the Winona Wastewater Treatment Plant, Bruce Reed’s Minnesota Wood Recyclers accepts brush, tree trimmings, and fallen trees from residents, contractors, and city crews. Known as the compost site, the waste wood dropped off there is generally chipped into mulch or burned. Minnesota Wood Recyclers has been offering the service for decades, and the city pays Reed for it. Now, city staff want to take a closer look at whether the service is still needed.
Reed said that when he started the wood recycling program in the early 1990s, the city privatized what had previously been a city-run operation and opted to contract the work out to Reed’s company. Today, Reed runs the program at the city-owned compost site. Citizens pay $5-10 to drop off a pickup load of brush, and the city pays Reed around $50,000 per year for the service. His latest five-year contract with the city was slated to expire at the end of this month. In a non-competitive process, the city has typically granted Reed contract extensions in five-year increments, but last week, the City Council approved a one-year extension ending next summer.
The one-year extension will give city staff time to consider alternative options to the current compost site program, including researching how other cities handle brush disposal, Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson said in an interview. “We’re going to ask, what value is being [provided] by the site being maintained?” he explained.
Nelson said that since they started burning emerald ash borer-infected trees at Prairie Island a few years ago, city crews have become less dependent on Reed’s brush disposal service. “The city’s been taking care of the vast majority of our own trees at Prairie Island, so we hardly use it anymore,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t really serve city government, but it does serve the public,” he stated. Homeowners looking to dispose of brush do have one alternative that is not subsidized by city government: Dick Gallien’s Winona Compost Farm in East Burns Valley.
Reed said that city crews are utilizing his site regularly. He claimed that Nelson’s depiction that the city hardly uses the site anymore was incorrect. “Everyone is able to take the ash wood to the Prairie Island site, but believe me, there’s a lot of material that comes in,” Reed state. “I mean if they want to start counting loads, we can easily do that.” Reed acknowledged that his business and the Winona Compost Farm are offering similar services, but Reed said that many residents prefer his site.
Nelson claimed that Reed was not doing all the work the city’s contract requires. Nelson said Reed’s company has been stockpiling brush without disposing of it. “It’s been a number of years since that pile has been chipped up and disposed,” Nelson stated. “This gives him a year to bring it under compliance,” Nelson said of the extension. Asked if a pile of brush next to the wastewater treatment plant was causing a problem for the city, Nelson responded, “It’s part of the agreement. It needs to be cleaned up and maintained … We pay the operator $52,000 to operate the facility. He’s getting paid to do a service.”
Reed offered an explanation. He said that he had been selling wood to a power plant in St. Paul. The deal had been working out well, so when power plant representatives told Reed to keep stacking up brush until they could come down for the next pickup, that is what he did. Then one day, Reed explained, “[The power plant representative] said, ‘Oh no, we’re too busy. We can’t come down.’ So I have an overflow of brush. The guy I was counting on left me high and dry.” Reed said he is working on a plan for what to do with the brush now — possibly selling the wood chips as animal bedding or as mulch. Reed said that since the advent of colored mulch, there has been little demand for his naturally colored mulch, but he is looking into options for coloring his mulch.
Reed said that taxpayers are getting a good value for his contract payments, adding that he has invested a significant amount of money into the equipment needed to run the site. “Basically, I’m busting my [rear end]. I don’t get a lot. It’s not a get-rich quick business. It’s more like a break-even business right now,” Reed said. “I think if you took a poll of the city of Winona, the residents, they’d tell you I’ve done a good job,” he added.
The City Council unanimously approved the one-year extension without discussion. In an interview after the vote, Mayor Mark Peterson said, “I think it’s always a good thing that we review our contracts.”