By Gail Binkly
and David Long
Saying they want to move in another direction, the Montezuma County commissioners fired their long-time landfill manager, Deb Barton, on Monday.
The decision came following a discussion with Barton over issues such as fees, the merits of baling vs. compacting, and the landfill budget. The commissioners had listed the discussion on the agenda as an executive session, but Barton opted to have the session open to the public – an employee’s prerogative under Colorado law.
“I have always believed in transparency,” she said.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla made the motion to remove Barton, effective in 45 days. The vote was unanimous.
However, on Oct. 30, Barton told the Free Press she had been informed by Commissioner Keenan Ertel that she was to leave on Oct. 31, not in 45 days.
Barton had been landfill manager for 14 years. A member of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America board of directors since 2002, she was named the outstanding SWANA member for Colorado in 2005.
Suckla and Barton had had a heated exchange over the landfill at the Oct. 20 commission meeting. On Monday, Barton apologized, saying she had lost her temper.
But Suckla said he continued to have a number of concerns about the way the landfill has been operated, in particular the fees that are charged. He said he’d spoken with a county commissioner from one of the counties served by the multi-jurisdictional landfill in the San Luis Valley, and that commissioner said their rates were about half those charged at the Montezuma County facility and they “have $4 million in the bank.”
“The landfill is a service to the constituents of the county,” Suckla said. “Every year, [our] landfill fees go up – I wonder why.”
The landfill is an enterprise business, meaning it does not rely on taxpayer subsidies, and has a million-dollar annual budget.
Barton said the San Luis Valley facility has to have $4 million set aside as surety in case the facility should go bankrupt. Because it is multi-jurisdictional, it can’t use a county as its surety, but the local landfill can.
Barton said Montezuma County Landfill fee hikes are necessary to keep pace with cost-of-living increases for items such as fuel, personnel, electricity, and engineering costs. In addition, she said, the county is required to have liners for its cells because of its nearness to water wells. The landfill is operating in the black, with $387,000 in its account, she said.
Suckla asked how she had determined the fees for electronic-waste disposal, and Barton said they were based on the fees the landfill pays to Natural Evolution, a vendor in Oklahoma that accepts the e-waste, plus staff time and the costs of packaging and shipping the material. Natural Evolution is one of 16 U.S. companies that is e-Steward, R2, and IS14001-certified, meaning there will be no practices such as the use of sweatshops or child labor in the supply chain and that the facility meets health and safety standards.
“I don’t think you guys want to be on ‘60 Minutes,’ because I don’t,” she said. Such shows have done exposés on how e-waste is sometimes taken to Third World countries and recycled under extremely dangerous conditions for workers, often children.
Suckla said a local man has said he could take the e-waste more cheaply. Barton said she’d asked that individual to provide proof of his third-party audit and he failed to do so, because his downstream vendors did not provide him proof that they met standards.
Suckla said local fees are so high, they discourage people from disposing of waste properly. “I believe the fees have a direct impact on the way our county look – how much stuff people in the county are willing to bring to the landfill, and how much they will leave out there sitting like blight.”
He said a local man told him he had a large TV he wanted to dispose of and was told it would cost $57, which he considered exorbitant. “This guy says he will take a backhoe and take care of it in his pasture,” Suckla said.
Barton said the landfill charges $1 per diagonal inch for a TV, the same rate as the Durango landfill.
Barton said the county landfill offers services that some other facilities do not, such as recycling and composting, including with biowastes; collecting e-waste two days a year; setting metals aside for collection; refrigerator collection in conjunction with Empire Electric; and providing education and outreach. Those services are done at the request of the community, she said.
Suckla also voiced concern about what he said was Barton’s reluctance to move toward compacting – which some people see as more efficient – rather than baling. He said the commissioners have asked her for the past year to look into compaction “and you have always thrown up a roadblock.”
Barton said she had a person coming to the landfill the next morning to talk about the costs of buying or leasing a compactor.
The commissioners also questioned Barton about some of the figures in her budget, including the amount she had estimated for fuel costs, which was based on a price of $6 a gallon for diesel. The board said they’d never seen diesel costs that high. Barton said the figure was just an estimate and any funds that weren’t spent would remain in the landfill account at any rate.
Suckla also said he had received complaints that Barton was sometimes rude to people and Commissioner Steve Chappell agreed, saying, “We often get reports of short temper and abruptness at the landfill.”
Barton said this was the first she’d heard of this and that she was rarely at the window at the landfill. She said if there were complaints, she should have been told sooner, and asked whether it would not have been fairer to provide her a performance evaluation so that she could make improvements.
County Administrator Melissa Brunner said the county doesn’t yet have performance evaluations.
Suckla said Barton had been told a year earlier of a complaint and had said she would change but did not.
He said the county needs “a cheerful face” at the landfill.
After the vote, Barton said, “It has been a privilege to serve the county and I thought I had done the best I could.”
Barton is the latest in a growing number of high-ranking employees who have left under the current commission, including the county attorney (who’d been with the county 26 years) and road supervisor (six years), who were terminated; and the county administrator (seven years) and planning director (eight years), who resigned abruptly.