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Photo by Ryan Howard

The Forest Lake City Council is discussing whether or not to close its free city-run compost site permanently and route residents to a free county-wide site five minutes away.

Forest Lake’s city-operated compost site may see its last day on Nov. 27 – or it might not.

After receiving a recommendation Oct. 21 to shut down the site in favor of residents using the new free site Washington County is opening five minutes away in Hugo, the council voted Oct. 28 to table a decision about whether to keep the site open next year to the end of January. The site’s regular seasonal closing date of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) will remain intact this year.

Forest Lake has been operating its compost site off of U.S. Highway 61, south of downtown, free to city residents since 2016, following a legal battle with former private site operator Buberl. In 2017, the county entered talks with the city to take over the Forest Lake site, but those negotiations fell through (only two of the five members from that City Council are still on the body today). The new Washington County site is on the site of the old Hugo compost site, on 170th Street North about a half mile west of U.S. Highway 61.

The topic was presented at the council’s Oct. 21 work session by Public Works Superintendent Dave Adams, who recommended that the council close the Forest Lake site to save money, staff time and taxpayer dollars.

“Do we feel there’s a need for two sites within 5 miles of each other?” he asked.

Adams laid out several reasons why closing the site would be beneficial for both city government and residents. He said the city spends about $20,000 to $35,000 per year on the site, not counting the staff hours – an estimated 750 to 900 annually – that public works employees could otherwise use to accomplish other city tasks. The $20,000 to $35,000 includes three seasonal employees who work at the compost site throughout its open season, which begins in April.

“[In January,] I could start keeping track of everything that we did outside of … what we usually do and how much faster we get stuff done,” he said of calculating a metric for increased public works productivity without the site.

Adams added that though some Forest Lake residents would have to drive about five additional minutes to get to the site in Hugo, closing the Forest Lake site would mean that city residents’ tax dollars would only be going to fund the county site rather than sites run by both the city and county (Washington County charges a 34.5% fee on residents’ garbage bills to fund the county environmental center, the compost site and related services). Plus, the county site will have greater hours of availability than the Forest Lake site, as well as the added benefit of being open year-round. The site’s April through November hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (or dusk) on Wednesdays, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays (a total of 29 hours and 30 minutes weekly). The December through March hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. This year, the Forest Lake site was open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the spring (27 hours total); Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer (13 hours); and Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the fall (approximately 25 to 27 hours depending on nightfall). The site has always been closed during the winter months.

Adams also noted that the Forest Lake Compost Site now operating next to the former Forestland Nursery location was always intended to be temporary and that keeping it set up indefinitely would likely require the city to invest in additional road infrastructure near the location. He pointed out that the land on which the site sits could also potentially be a place for a business to locate if the city stopped using it (the city has also floated the possibility of building a public works building on the land).

Council members were open to the idea but afraid that the optics would look like the city was reducing services – particularly in the wake of the controversy about its garbage hauling contract this summer.

“I’m just afraid that you’re going to catch a bunch of flak,” Councilman Sam Husnik told Adams.

At the Oct. 28 meeting, council members were even more wary of making a quick decision, even though multiple members said there appeared to be more pros than cons to closing down the site.

“We took a week to think about it and to hear residents’ feedback, and honestly, I haven’t – most of the feedback that I’ve heard has been to wait and this is too fast and so it really made me stop and think about what the residents want. … I don’t want to rush into something when we have a temporary solution right now,” Councilwoman Kelly Monson said, adding that since the Washington County site is also a temporary solution with a three-year lease, the county’s planned future site could be farther away for Forest Lake residents.

A local resident voice speaking in favor of the Forest Lake site was Dick Tschida, who said the council should consider the intangibles, not just the financial stakes, in keeping or closing the site.

“When the county takes over, it becomes a little more difficult, and it’s not as friendly,” he said. “When you go to this [Forest Lake] site, your neighbor or a friend or someone that you may have met in the past is there to greet you and give you directions, and it’s been a very pleasurable experience using it.”

The council also heard from County Commissioner Fran Miron and Jeff Travis, program manager for Washington County Public Health and Environment. They assured the city that the county was looking for a permanent site in the northern part of the county and that the county was committed to keeping a northern site open and providing excellent customer services in the long-term.

In the end, the council voted to table the decision in order to get more feedback and data. Members noted that in the intervening two months between the Forest Lake site’s regular close and a council decision, city residents will be able to access the new Washington County site during winter hours to get a better idea of whether the new site would be an acceptable replacement.

Bond

At its Oct. 14 meeting, the council held a public hearing and voted to approve bond issuances of approximately $13.3 million for water infrastructure projects and just over $4 million for road repairs, along with a refinancing of City Center bonds that will save the city about $150,000 over the next four years. The water bonds will be funded by the city’s water fund, while the road bonds will be funded by a debt service levy estimated by staff to cost the owner of a $250,000 home in Forest Lake an additional $18 per year. Read more about the reasoning behind the bond issuances in the Sept. 19 story “Council faces tough bond, levy choices” or online at tinyurl.com/y43xhvvf.

Bond Advisor Bruce Kimmel advised the city that residents could attempt to overturn the city’s bond issue attempt within 30 days of the public hearing if they could get a petition signed by residents equal to 5% of the voting population in last year’s election; however, he said, “We hope that people will see this as being a good thing for the city and the taxpayers.”

The bond sale award is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 14.

In other recent council business, multiple council members stated on Oct. 14 that they have heard concerns from residents that their garbage bills have dramatically increased under new Forest Lake garbage hauler Republic Services. However, they explained, this is due to Republic billing its customers every three months, while previous hauler SRC sent a bill every two months.

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