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Should Valley citizens be subsidizing a for-profit company?

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Amid discord over whether the county should be providing free assistance to a business, the Board of Supervisors today deferred action on a proposal to remove waste from a Thermal composting site and thereby spare Coachella Valley residents from foul odors.

"Why in the world should the citizens of this county subsidize a for-profit company?" Supervisor Jeff Stone asked in challenging board Chairman John Benoit's plan. "Why should the taxpayers pick up the tab for this business's problems?"

Benoit brought forward the proposed agreement with Thermal-based California Bio-Mass Inc. to address an ongoing nuisance at the company's composting site.

"It's a situation where there's now a large residential area within one mile of this facility," Benoit said. "The city of La Quinta has been a very vocal proponent of trying to relocate it."

According to the chairman, liquid waste, mostly grease, has been used at the location for years for recycling purposes. The substances give off a noxious odor that carries on the wind, generating numerous complaints that have resulted in citations for state environmental violations, Benoit said.

He said lawsuits have been threatened. The county's Department of Waste Management got involved to help find possible solutions. The most workable, according to Benoit, was for the site to undergo a clean-up and the mounds of grease-laden compost be hauled away to the county's Oasis Landfill.

The dump is one of the most under-utilized countywide, containing at most between three and 17 tons of waste on any given day, with a capacity of 75,000 tons, according to Waste Management Director Hans Kernkamp. He said more trash would be needed at the location to cover the estimated 1,600 tons of greasy material transferred from the Cal Bio-Mass facility.

Benoit's proposal called for waste hauler Burrtec to take refuse that would otherwise be dumped at the overburdened Lamb's Canyon Landfill in the Banning Pass and dump it at the Oasis site.

The proposed agreement with Cal Bio-Mass included the waiver of so-called "tipping fees" charged for dumping refuse at a county landfill. According to county documents, around $700,000 in fees would be waived.

Department of Waste Management officials' contributions to the cleanup and coordination of the transfers would result in the county absorbing $250,000 in costs, essentially making in-kind donations, officials said.

"This is a low-cost way to expeditiously deal with the problem," Benoit said. "There has been lots of discussion about the pros and cons, and this is a very innovative approach to resolve this."

But Stone pointed out that the county would be extending itself in money and time to accommodate a firm that had not even been sued yet, without the benefit of a lien on the Cal Bio-Mass property to protect the county's interests.

"This is a gift of public funds," he said.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries echoed those concerns, noting that a composting operator in the county's First District could ask for the same bargain proposed for Cal Bio-Mass.

"It gets a little complicated," Jeffries said.

Temecula resident Paul Jacobs criticized the arrangement, deriding it as a form of "corporate welfare."

"This would involve the use of county equipment. Waste management personnel would be working overtime, taking staff away from other duties," Jacobs said. "You'd be throwing a million dollars at an unknown. The public is weary of bailouts."

Supervisor Marion Ashley, initially behind the idea, made a motion with Supervisor John Tavaglione to postpone action on the Benoit plan until next week to give the Office of County Counsel time to research how the county's financial interests would be best served.

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