NILES - A proposal that would allow the city administration to enter into a feasibility study with a private waste-to-energy center has been tabled, bringing uncertainty to the future of the potential partnership.
The decision by Niles City Council was made Wednesday night during a tense, hourlong public meeting in crowded council chambers.
Hydra Renewable Resources Inc. asked council to push through the measure during the final scheduled council meeting before a summer recess lasting until Aug. 21.
The agreement would have allowed city administrators, in conjunction with the city of Warren, to draft terms on a $500,000 study to measure the potential leasing of the city's wastewater system to the private waste-to-energy company.
Councilman Steve Papalas said not enough information was presented on the project for council to make a decision at this time.
"I think more study needs to be done," Papalas said. "We should have a roundtable with various entities involved, including the city of Warren, a couple other council members and some of our employees before taking any action."
Hydra was represented at the meeting by former Trumbull County engineer David DeChristofaro, who said there is a hard deadline sometime in July on a decision by the city.
"We'll have to discuss with council what their interest is after they've tabled it, if they want to bring it back for consideration this month,'' DeChristofaro said. ''They don't have another meeting this month, so we'll have to see if they're willing to hold a special meeting."
The meeting often grew contentious with lengthy statements by DeChristofaro on one side and city employees on the other.
According to DeChristofaro, the company would pay for the entirety of the feasibility study, which could last up to seven months. After the study has concluded, Hydra would also pay for the city's own team of engineers to look at their findings.
In addition, DeChristofaro said if the city did choose to go forward with the proposed 25-year lease of the city's wastewater operation, the company would pay for a new treatment facility, annual $10 million upgrades to the city's sanitary sewer collection system and $8 million a year for the ground lease, which would be put in the city's coffers and used as officials and council see fit.
"The city will not be obligated to go forward with anything after the feasibility study," DeChristofaro said. "You can simply walk away after it's over at no cost to the city."
DeChristofaro also pledged no city workers would lose their jobs in the process.
"More jobs will be created than jobs lost," DeChristofaro said.
However, city wastewater workers challenged DeChristofaro's claims, while urging the city to pass on the study and any subsequent deals.
Bo Marshionte, who has worked at Niles' wastewater plant for more than 20 years, pointed out during an impassioned address that the company has no operational or functional plant in the United States.
"I've talked to countless people over the last 24 hours and the feeling is overwhelmingly negative on Hydra," Marshionte said.
"We know, as always, if something seems too good to be true, it usually isn't true. A company comes riding in on its horse when we have a financial misstep and they are going to save us. They are going to throw money into the pockets of the city. It sounds good, but there has to be a catch," he said.
Marshionte highlighted a portion of the company's website which states, "our target markets are made up of cites and other municipalities anywhere in the world that are financially stressed."
He also pointed to a failed attempt by Hydra to establish a similar feasibility study in Newmarket, N.H. and other municipalities in the U.S. as proof that something is off with the proposals.
"They had the same deal, but they passed," Marshionte said. "Why would they elect to pass? The closer this thing got, the more questions were dodged. You don't believe me, why don't they have a functional plant working in the U.S.? They are only in Third World countries."
Meanwhile, Niles Mayor Ralph A. Infante argued the city had nothing to lose by agreeing to the feasibility study.
"I would have rather seen a yes or a no vote," Infante said. "Either vote for or against it, because there is no cost. I think you are cheating the taxpayer. You're not giving them an opportunity for us to do something that is creative using waste for reusable resources for electric.
"They can also use our sludge which will save us for tipping fees. If it's not feasible, fine, but at least let them do the study."
Papalas said if the company wanted council to go forward with the ordinance, they should have allowed councilmen to review the agreement before the vote.
"There's some controversy there," Papalas said of an agreement that was originally on the table by Hydra, but was pulled due to concerns of the city over some of the language. "I thought it was wrong not to include the agreement with this ordinance. I can understand why they wouldn't include it, though, because of the way it originally read. The law director uncomfortable with it too. Anybody who read it should have been uncomfortable."
According to officials, there are no current plans to revisit the topic, putting its future in doubt.
Infante said he would not push to continue discussions.
"It's up to council now," Infante said. "I did my part. I'm done."