A better offer on the table?

Published 11:33 pm Friday, February 20, 2009

Finally, there is an issue that the bumbling Southeastern Public Service Authority may have gotten right. Amidst growing pressure for the organization to accept an offer from ReEnergy Holdings, wash its hands and walk away from the problems that plague it, the regional waste management agency has stood firm in saying, effectively, “Not now.”

Originally, it was an answer that left many scratching their heads and wondering what — or if — the members of the agency’s board of directors were thinking. After all, ReEnergy’s offer would have paid off about 85 percent of SPSA’s debt and removed from it the responsibility of managing assets that have proved to be unmanageable for the Authority.

A widely distributed letter this week helps explain the reason for the board’s reluctance to sign the contract that ReEnergy has been pressing before elected officials and the court of public opinion: There’s a much better deal on the table. Officials from New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. pleaded with area officials to move cautiously when it comes to making any decision that would affect the agency’s waste-to-energy plant, for which Wheelabrator and Covanta Energy have both made offers.

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Though he refused to specify the purchase price his company had submitted for the WTE plant in Portsmouth, a Wheelabrator official said on Friday that the offer would be enough to pay off all of SPSA’s debt and still leave the agency with some assets. A decision must be made on the WTE offers by June 30, meaning the agency might have to endure another four months in the hot seat while the offers are evaluated. Significantly, most of the member communities also would face a couple of months of exorbitant landfill fees in the interim.

Wheelabrator’s decision to make a candid announcement about its offer may well have been designed to stave off pressure to accept ReEnergy’s offer and therefore keep Wheelabrator in the mix. But SPSA’s board members also must welcome the cover the company has given them for continuing with an extremely unpopular plan of raising tipping fees to unheard-of levels.

If the waste-to-energy offers are as good as they’ve been portrayed, then it will all have been worthwhile. If there’s a hitch in the negotiations, however, and the two interested companies walk away from the table, then putting off ReEnergy will be seen as yet another bungled decision. Considering SPSA’s checkered past, one hopes the agency has a backup plan.