Mayor and alderman have testy exchange over waste contract

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

A testy exchange between mayor Mike Sobol and alderman Larry Harris about the solid waste removal contract that Black Mountain signed in August 2016 highlighted the aldermen board meeting last week.

Sobol broached the topic in the opening minutes of the Oct. 5 meeting. Harris responded in the closing minutes, sparking brief but intense debate between the two.

Black Mountain mayor Michael Sobol, left, and alderman Larry Harris spar over the town's solid waste disposal contract with Waste Pro during an Oct. 4 meeting. The contract was approved unanimously by the board in August of 2016.

The mayor, seeking a second term in the Nov. 7 election, opened the meeting with announcements typical of the beginning of an aldermen meeting. He thanked the public services department for its work after the remnants of Hurricane Irma blew through the area. He thanked the recreation department for organizing the Oct. 4 walk to school event.

Then he pivoted to the town’s contract with Waste Pro, which started trash services in Black Mountain in October 2016.  

Sobol referred to minutes from the Aug. 8, 2016 aldermen meeting in which the officials unanimously passed the contract with Waste Pro. At that meeting, town manager Matt Settlemyer presented the board with a proposal from solid waste collection company Waste Pro. Settlemyer recommended the town go with Waste Pro, which would supply the service at a cost of about $15 per household annually, compared to a proposal from Republic that would have been around $25 per household.

Sobol at the meeting last week took credit for noting that, by removing landfill and other fees that the town pays on its own, the town could reduce the per-household rate. "The amount of money that was saved right then, over the course of four years, would’ve been in the neighborhood of around $700,000,” Sobol said. 

Harris - who like the rest of the board of aldermen is supporting alderman Don Collins for mayor in the November election - "realized what a good deal that was," Sobol said, "and immediately made a motion to go ahead and adopt the proposal. That’s what the board did, and I think it was a great decision.”

The mayor said he asked Settlemyer in November 2016 for a copy of the contract, which provides for incremental rate increases each year of the four-year agreement. Sobol said he received the copy in February 2017.

The per-household price "jumps from $11.46 (per household) to $12.09 this year,” he said. “Then another 50 cents the following year and another 50 cents the following year, which is basically $100,000 over three years. I just don’t understand how we ended up with these increases in here and the justifications for them.”

Harris said, “I can explain that.” The mayor immediately replied “I’m talking now” before saying “so, that’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Harris, responding to Sobol near the end of the meeting, agreed that the wording of his original motion to adopt the contract was inadequate.

"We took the contract that Waste Pro offered," Harris said. "The intention of my motion was to accept their proposal, less the landfill fees."

Waste Pro initially balked at the $11.46 rate when Settlemyer sat down with officials to finalize the contract, the town manager said, but he added that the waste management company agreed to raising the rate incrementally on a scale similar to the one included in its proposal. 

Settlemyer said he believed the negotiation fell in line with the original intent of the motion. Sobol took issue with Settlemyer's recollection of the meeting, which prompted Harris to disagree with him. 

"You have to listen," Sobol said to him, referring to minutes of the August 2016 meeting. "What I'm going to do is get a transcript of that."

Harris then began to ask assistant town manager and finance director Dean Luebbe a question. Sobol interrupted him. 

"We don't need to ask Dean," Sobol exclaimed, to which Harris replied, "I would like to ask Dean (a question). I have the floor, don't I?"

Sobol told Harris to keep his voice down. Harris said "I'm cool" and asked Luebbe about the town's history of paying landfill costs.

Harris again asserted that the original motion was worded inadequately, and Sobol responded that it didn't matter. The two officials continued to squabble.

"This board needs to address the issue," Sobol said. 

Collins jumped in to the spat to remind the public of the board's successful effort in getting rid of the town's garbage tax in 2011. 

"To date that's saved this town's taxpayers $1.8 million," Collins said, before the conversation ended and Sobol adjourned the meeting abruptly.