Cities in fight with Broward County over $100 million in garbage funds

Several Broward municipalities are in a fight to recover more than $100 million in money and assets accumulated over the years for solid waste disposal.

As of Tuesday, a 25-year agreement with the county that dictated how cities disposed of their garbage comes to an end, and the cities fear the money they have paid for waste to energy plants and tipping fees will be lost to the county.

In an effort to halt the process, at least 10 Broward municipalities — including Weston, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Sunrise — have banded together to sue the county. More are expected to join in the fight.

“The agreement is crystal clear,” said Jamie Cole, the attorney leading the effort on behalf of the cities. “There is supposed to be an equitable distribution of the assets.”

Back in the 1980s, in response to a growing trash problem, the cities joined together and signed a 25-year agreement that required cities to dump their garbage in the county’s landfill. Fees were collected from the 27 contract communities and the Resource Recovery Board was set up to oversee the district. Each community had representatives on the board, which set fees and made other key decisions.

The municipalities that belonged included Coconut Creek, Cooper City, Coral Springs, Davie, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Hillsboro Beach, Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, Lazy Lake, Lighthouse Point, Margate, Miramar, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Pembroke Park, Plantation, Sea Ranch Lakes, Southwest Ranches, Sunrise, Tamarac, Unincorporated Broward County, Weston, West Park and Wilton Manors.

“Everything was working the way it should,” said John Herbst, Fort Lauderdale’s auditor, who was charged with looking at the solid waste district’s funds.

But about a year ago, when city leaders realized the Resource Recovery Board was going to be disbanded, talk began about how to distribute the assets.

Cole likens it to a divorce.

When two parties separate, both parties need to follow the agreement — which in this case, he argues, calls for the communities to get an equitable cut of the assets based on the tonnage dumped.

“One party can’t just take everything,” he said.

But Cole said that’s exactly what has happened. Broward has already transferred some of the funds in the Resource Recovery Board’s reserves into the county’s own solid waste accounts. In March, he said, the county transferred $22 million to be used for future landfill closure costs, and more recently moved an additional $9.2 million into its own account.

Broward County contends that even though the 25-year agreement is ending, the county still has future costs affiliated with the landfill, including overseeing its eventual closing.

Elliot Auerhahn, director of solid waste and recycling services for the county, said with a lawsuit pending, he could not comment.

But if the county keeps the assets and cash, it could mean the municipalities losing out on millions of dollars for their own coffers.

“The cities don’t want anything more or anything less that was agreed to 30 years ago,” said Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan.

Daniel Stermer, the mayor of Weston, said the lawsuit is necessary because “the county’s recent actions” haven’t followed the agreement.

Tuesday also triggers a new era of garbage disposal in the county. Instead of the majority of the cities using Wheelabrator’s two waste-to-energy plants as it had over the life of the agreement, many have opted to go with different companies, including Sun-Bergeron, a joint venture of Bergeron Environmental and Recycling, and Sun Recycling, a subsidiary of Lantana-based Southern Waste Systems. They also secured different companies for co-mingled junk and recyclables.

Recently, Hollywood agreed to go with Waste Services of Florida, a multi-reginal solid waste company with customers across the United States and Canada.

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez said the decision to go with the new company was based on cost savings, but he still hopes the city can recover its share of money from the Resource Recovery Board.

“That’s money that belongs to us,” he said. “It needs to be dispersed.”

A previous version of this story misstated the first name of the Weston mayor.

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