by CHRIS ROGERS
On Monday, the Winona City Council is slated to approve a $55,000-a-year contract awarded through a noncompetitive process. For the past 20-plus years, the city has hired Bruce Reed’s Minnesota Wood Recyclers to run the city compost site, a brush and wood disposal yard on city-owned land on Shives Road. After weighing last year whether to continue the contract at all, city staff have now proposed a new two-year deal with Minnesota Wood Recyclers. Dick Gallien of the Winona Farm, a privately owned compost site in Winona, said he wanted to be considered for the contract. The city did not allow other companies to compete.
The city first hired Reed’s company in the early 1990s to outsource what had previously been a city-run operation. The city’s contract ensured public works crews would have somewhere to take tree trimmings from boulevards and parks and enabled the public to drop off loads of brush with Minnesota Wood Recyclers for a fee. The company charges the public around $5-10 per load.
In the last few years, however, city crews have not been using the compost site as much as they once did. That is because ever since the invasive, ash-tree-killing insect, the emerald ash borer (EAB), descended on Winona, city crews have been hauling tremendous amounts of downed trees to Prairie Island to be burned. “The city’s been taking care of the vast majority of our own trees at Prairie Island, so we hardly use it anymore,” Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson said last summer.
Last June, city leaders switched up their normal routine of approving five-year contracts with Reed and entered into a one-year agreement that they said would give the city time to evaluate whether the program was really needed anymore, whether the city might start running the compost site itself again, or whether city leaders wanted to make any other changes. “We’re going to ask, what value is being [provided] by the site being maintained?” Nelson explained at the time.
Fast forward one year and city staff have proposed a new two-year deal with Minnesota Wood Recyclers. Nelson explained the city would shut down its Prairie Island burn site and start sending all of its wood to the compost site. The city had been quarantining and burning EAB-infested wood there in order to prevent the insects’ spread, but now that EAB is so widespread in the Winona area, there is no longer any point in quarantining and burning the wood, Nelson stated. Asked if the compost site contract was something the city needed, Nelson responded, “We certainly could do it ourselves. We’ve been running a separate site [at Prairie Island] for several years now and could continue doing that, but we need somewhere to dispose of the wood and the community really should have a compost site.”
Under the new deal, Minnesota Wood Recyclers will receive $55,000 this year and $57,000 the next.
Nelson confirmed the city did not allow other companies to make proposals or bid for the contract to run the compost site. “Not for this one,” he stated, adding the city might change that in the future. “We know there are some changes going on at the Winona Farm, and we know the county is also investigating some options for a compost site,” Nelson said, referring to an ongoing Winona County study of potential food and yard waste composting sites. “We think something will be more readily available in the future, but we don’t see that as satisfactory right now.” Nelson explained he did not see the Winona Farm as satisfactory right now. Asked why, he answered, “It’s been difficult for the public to get in and out of there, and we just think the public will be better served by this contract.” Nelson said he has received complaints that the Winona Farm’s dirt road is sometimes muddy and that the loose farm animals makes access difficult. Although the city is awarding this contract to Minnesota Wood Recyclers, he added, “The public can still go out to the Winona Farm, and we [the city] actually take a lot of material out there ourselves.”
Gallien said he wished he could have competed for the composting contract and that the city’s noncompetitive process for awarding it was not fair. “It should be announced,” he stated. “People should at least be warned. Nowhere has it ever been said, ‘If there’s someone else who’s interested … ’”
Out on East Burns Valley Road, the Winona Farm accepts yard waste and other compost from the public — and the city — for a small fee, collected on the honor system in a jar by the gate. A dirt road leads to the collection piles, and various farm animals, including goats that are fond of yard waste, wander free. Gallien acknowledged that the dirt road and loose animals are issues, but said that with the money from the city contract, he could easily afford to put down gravel and install new fencing for the animals. “Yes, [the animals] have to be separated, and people could still see them, which is great,” he stated, joking, “A lot of people like the goats because they help them unload.” Gallien added, “A little crushed rock and then people would say, ‘Gee, this is nice.’”
On Shives Road last Friday, a few citizens brought in trailer loads of brush on the gravel road leading into the city compost site. “We try to keep the site where it’s easy to get in and out,” Bruce Reed’s son and business partner, Nick Reed, stated. Nick Reed added, “This place is for the community. It’s for everybody.” The two men grind the brush and wood they receive into mulch, some of which, Bruce Reed said, is used by youth participants in a local Restorative Justice community service program to mulch trees at local parks. “I’ve got a lot of money in here,” Bruce Reed said, nodding to the equipment he has invested in over the years to run the city compost site. As for the city’s process for awarding the contract, Bruce Reed stated, “It’s none of my business. What the city does is what the city does.”
The Winona City Council is expected to vote on the compost contract on Monday night.