The high cost of going green in Charleston County

Five years ago, Charleston County set up a “green ribbon committee” to set goals for solid waste disposal and recycling.

Get it? Green ribbon? Cute.

The county brought in Florida-based Kessler Consulting Inc. to work with the committee, consult and come up with a plan. Most people would say that worked out pretty well. The county set a goal of recycling 40 percent of its solid waste. We’re up to 25 percent now, and the county looks downright progressive.

But it’s not easy being green — and apparently it’s not cheap either.

Kessler Consulting never left Charleston, and now collects about $400,000 a year to run the county’s solid waste program. It even has consultants “embedded” in the county waste department.

And County Councilman Joe Qualey says it’s too much.

“In my opinion, the approximately $30,000 a month we’re paying them is deplorable,” Qualey says. “The program is operating on its own, it’s on automatic, and I don’t know why we have to pay these exorbitant rates.”

Making dirt

Qualey has raised concerns about the consultant before, and County Council has always shut him down.

Qualey is on it again because of the new recycling center controversy. Last month County Council tentatively agreed to put the new center at the Bee’s Ferry Landfill, as Kessler recommended, then turned around and voted to put it on Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston.

“Why pay the man if we’re not going to listen to him?” Qualey says.

Other council members agree — it’s a good point.

No one at the county will argue that Kessler Consulting is not well compensated. The June 30 monthly invoice, which was a few bucks shy of $26,000, shows project director Mitch Kessler charged $15,000 for 91.5 hours of consulting. Six other employees and expenses round out the bill.

Qualey thinks county staff could do the same work much cheaper, now that they have studied under Kessler for nearly five years. Other county officials argue that Kessler has been invaluable to the county.

Kessler shut down an incinerator, set up an innovative food waste recycling program and is designing the forthcoming single-stream recycling center, which will sort materials on site. Nowadays, the county even uses its own compost instead of buying dirt for the landfill.

Some county council members note that the $2 million Kessler Consulting has been paid since 2008 is more than offset by the millions his programs have saved in the solid waste program.

But Qualey doesn’t buy it.

“A consultant is supposed to be temporary,” he says.

The county delays

Fact is, Kessler Consulting has been under contract far longer than anyone envisioned when this all started.

“Sometimes it feels like Groundhog Day,” says Councilman Herb Sass. “We go back and start over. We’re not getting it finished. We’re never going to get to a point where we don’t need consultants, but it would be good if we didn’t have to pay so much.”

Sass says that’s not Kessler’s fault, and he’s right. It’s the county’s fault.

Charleston County Council put off a decision on the location for a new recycling center for at least a year longer than it needed to. If a decision had been made more quickly, the consultants might very well be back in the Sunshine State today.

There is some support for Qualey’s position on council, but so far the majority of members don’t want to mess with a successful program until they are sure the solid waste department is truly on auto-pilot.

As Sass says, the county probably will always need outside advice. Between 2000 and 2008, the county spent nearly $5 million on solid waste consultants.

But Qualey raises a question worth discussion: Should going green cost taxpayers quite so much green?

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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