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After a shakeup, solid waste 'on track'

Three permanent Wadena County solid waste staff and a shared department head are in place following a year of change for the department. Consultant Mike Gibson, right, oversaw the reorganization of the department following the temporary closing of the transfer station in March. From left, Supervisor Tammy Ehrmantraut, attendant Mike Pete, attendant Chris Harshaw, and Department Head Mike Hanan.

After a tumultuous 2009, Wadena County Solid Waste will enter 2010 with a new department head, three full-time employees and a reorganized system.

"I'm happy with the way things are going," said attendant Chris Harshaw. "It looks like we've got a pretty bright future ahead of us."

Harshaw was hired as a part-time employee in February just before the transfer station was temporarily closed in March due to personnel issues. Following the closure, he served as the temporary solid waste supervisor and accepted a full-time permanent position as an attendant starting Dec. 18.

Mike Pete accepted the other attendant position and Tammy Ehrmantraut is the new solid waste supervisor.

Otter Tail County Solid Waste Director Mike Hanan will become the department head Jan. 2 following a joint agreement between the two counties to share his services. Hanan has been the solid waste director in Otter Tail since 1987 and served in Stearns County for seven years before that. The shared department head agreement calls for him to be available to solid waste staff and the county board by telephone and e-mail as needed. He will visit the transfer station as needed, averaging at least monthly.

The biggest short-term goal for Hanan is to look at the expansion of the Perham Resource and Recovery Facility, he said. A major long-term goal is working on the Prairie Lakes Municipal Solid Waste Authority, which is a group of counties looking at combining efforts on recycling, education and waste reduction.

Right now, the county has good programs in place, Hanan said, and he doesn't expect any drastic changes.

"Everything is pretty much on track here now," he said.

Major changes at the solid waste department began a year ago when the county board separated the solid waste department from planning and zoning and parks and promoted Scott Carpenter to director of solid waste.

Carpenter was eventually terminated from his position, with the county citing a misuse of county property, funds and employee time and resources. The county reached a separation agreement with the other full-time solid waste employee, Joel Walsvik, after an investigation was resolved.

In March the county board asked Mike Gibson, who had been serving as a human resources consultant for the county, to oversee the reorganization of the department. Since then, major changes have taken place.

There used to be two full-time and one part-time position at solid waste. Now there are three full-time positions with a separate department head, Gibson said. There is better accountability with more than one person handling the cash, he said. The state auditor recommended a separation of duties.

The staff also has more time now to maintain the building and the grounds, Gibson said.

Harshaw said they cut down on waste by pulling out recyclables and scrap metal for the county. He also formed a plan to provide usable furniture, sinks and other items to an organization that restores them and sells them to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.

The county experienced some trouble in the summer and fall with people dumping garbage at recycling sites, but that has gotten a lot better since letters with fines were sent out, Harshaw said.

"I'm pretty happy with the way things are going," he said.

The county is expanding its recycling program, Gibson said, and plans to reeducate the community about proper recycling. As part of the department head sharing agreement, Wadena County will receive educational services from the Otter Tail County Solid Waste Department up to five times a year.

New recycling containers are being placed at Verndale and to replace the barrels at Aldrich, Gibson said.

The county has also made the transfer station safer by improving equipment and eliminating some dangerous practices that certainly would be in violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, he said. A camera system was also added to monitor the building and the grounds.

One of the major changes implemented this past year, Gibson said, was having haulers deliver their waste directly to the incinerator in Perham rather than dumping it at the transfer station and then the county hauling it to Perham. He figures this will save the county more than $100,000 a year, Gibson said.

He has been amazed at how complex the solid waste department is, Gibson said.

"It's just a fascinating business," he said. "People don't realize what a big role solid waste plays in their lives."

The solid waste department has discovered some real efficiencies in the past eight months, Gibson told commissioners at their Dec. 17 meeting. He thanked the board for the opportunity to work with the staff.

"You have some excellent staff in place," he said. "I feel that the operation is in excellent hands."