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  Monday January 26th, 2015    

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What should board do now? (01/13/2013)
By Frances Edstrom


I find it disturbing that the full Winona County Board has not been receiving key facts from their staff. The Winona Post, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested to view any and all emails between Winona County staff and Veolia Environmental Services. According to email correspondence between county staff and Veolia, it seems that loosely-written language in the contract between the county and the company contracted to pick up recyclables on a blanket basis throughout the county has led to obfuscation of the true cost of the program.

The county staff assumed that Veolia would, as in the past, charge a single fee for picking up multiple recycling bins at a single location, such as at multiple-family dwellings and businesses. However, there was a change in the contract language in the new document that may not have supported that assumption. (See page 1 story.)

Veolia interprets the new contract language to mean that they would charge the county a fee per container at those facilities. This method of charging would turn the $730,000 per year recycling program, that county board members thought they were approving, into a $1,630,000 program.

County staff realized the confusion over the contract language as soon as one month into the county’s groundbreaking county-wide recycling program, when the first invoice arrived from Veolia in early 2012. County staff also realized, as revealed in their e-mails, that should the reason for the contract confusion be made public by presenting the problem to the County Board, the program might have to be halted, and the contract re-let. I imagine that staff was also aware that there was no guarantee that the board would approve of such an enormous hike in the cost of the program.

It was in June of 2012, nearly six months after staff had discovered the problem with the contract, that all county board members were finally made aware of the situation. Even then, when the board was approached by staff, staff presented it as a problem with alley pickup in the city of Winona. Board members were told that Veolia needed more money because of extra trips due to lack of access to the curb for some Winona residents. The board approved the added funds, 4-1, Marcia Ward voting no.

In actuality, county staff told Veolia that the board wouldn’t swallow an extra $900,000, but that they could most likely get another 10-15% over the $730,000 by requesting more funding for alley pickup, rather than pointing out problems with the contract language and the true dollar amount at stake.

I think it is clear from the Post’s discovery of this action on the part of county staff—outlined in Sarah Squires’ front page story today—that taxpayers in the area should be thankful that there is someone who questions local government action.

The Winona Post has been faulted in the past for paying too much attention to the business of local governments, most frequently school board business. I remember a letter to the editor from a man who wrote that in the last city he had lived in, no one paid attention to local government, and certainly no one questioned the school board or the superintendent of schools.

Without oversight from the public and the press, how much might local government costs increase. Even those readers who believe that we (or some of us) should be paying more in taxes must agree that if government spends more money, it should be spent responsibly. Not many among us would think that a nearly million-dollar contract misunderstanding should just be swept under the rug.

We have a free press in this country, and the public (along with elected officials such as the Winona County Board members) has a right to transparency in government. Let’s see what the Winona County Board does with this information. 


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