Empty beds, declining hazardous waste fees lead to Tooele layoffs

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 5:21 p.m. MDT

Deseret Chemical Depot where the 1 millionth successful disposal of chemical munitions took place outside of Tooele, Utah, Mar. 9, 2005.

TOM SMART, Deseret News archives

TOOELE — More than two dozen Tooele County employees are losing their jobs — most of them corrections officers — due to a brand-new but half-empty jail and sharply declining fees the county gets from hazardous waste industries.

County leaders scrambled to plug a $2 million shortfall in the last quarter of this budget year — which ends Dec. 31 — by handing out pink slips to jail employees and eliminating the county's economic development department.

"It's been hurtful. The economy is really affecting everybody," said Tooele County Commissioner Bruce Clegg. "In a small community, all of your employees are also your friends."

The county gets a large chunk of its revenue in its $22.8 million budget from fees paid by industries such as EnergySolutions, specializing in the disposal of low-level radioactive waste, or contractor EG&G, the operator of Deseret Chemical Depot.

In the case of Deseret Chemical Depot, tasked with the incineration of what was once the nation's largest chemical weapons stockpile, it paid $1.8 million to Tooele County coffers in "mitigation fees" in 2007. From 2008 through 2011, it paid $3.9 million to Tooele County in fees, according to spokeswoman Alaine Grieser.

This year, with the very last chemical weapons destroyed in January, the depot ended up paying a mere $19,000 in fees.

"It's been a good thing for us and a good thing for the country to get it finished," Grieser said. "It hasn't been so good for Tooele County."

EnergySolutions' Clive facility, which is licensed to take low-level radioactive waste, has seen the volume of material it receives through Department of Energy contracts jump to an unprecedented high in 2005, but largely decline since.

In that year, Clive was getting material from the accelerated cleanup of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant near Denver and paid Tooele County more than $12 million in fees to offset potential environmental impacts.

Since 2007, mitigation fees EnergySolutions has paid to the county have hovered in the $5 million range each year until this year, when they dropped to $2.4 million.

Company spokesman Mark Walker said the decline in fees corresponds to a decline in federal dollars allocated to disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

"Right now, there is not a lot of money with the Department of Energy for disposal," Walker said. "Like all federal entities, there is just not a lot of money."

DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said $6 billion in federal stimulus money was thrown at multiple hazardous waste cleanup sites throughout the country, and that money has now largely gone away.

"A lot of things were completed well ahead of projected schedules because they had the funds to do it," he said.

The Moab tailings removal site, which received $108 million to accelerate its cleanup of radioactive waste left over from a now defunct uranium mine, has now been reduced to a nine-month work schedule, Taylor said, in contrast to when it once was removing 5,000 tons of contaminated dirt a day for disposal 30 miles away.

"There was a lot of cleanup waiting to get funded that all of sudden got funded," Taylor said. "That accelerated pace has dropped off."

To save jobs in Tooele County, Clegg said commissioners pondered the possibility of a tax increase, but said even doubling it wouldn't pull them out of next year's anticipated fiscal rut.

It is the sheriff's office that is feeling the effects of the budget crunch the most.

"I have an $800,000 cut for the quarter, which would be $3.2 million for the year," said Sheriff Frank Park. "We've had to tighten our belt for a number of years, and I think this is just one big notch we're taking up."

Park said the driving force behind the cuts at the sheriff's office is the new Tooele County Jail. The old jail held 104 inmates and Park said it was constantly filled.

The new $25 million jail, which opened earlier this year, has 250 beds. The thought was that federal and state prisoners could also be housed there, generating additional revenue for the county. As of Thursday, however, the jail was sitting well below capacity at 131 inmates.

"We haven't been able to find (federal inmates)," Park said. "We're in constant touch with U.S. marshals. They just don't have any inmates right now."

Even the number of prisoners that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency typically hold in local jails has gone down.

"This is just terrible timing for the jail, to need to supplement income we don't have," Park said. "We will definitely have the biggest monetary cuts simply because I have the biggest budget in county government."

If the Tooele County Jail would house 75 federal inmates for one year, it would mean an extra $1.3 million for the county, he said.

The belt tightening within the sheriff's office will result in 20 to 24 people losing their jobs by Sept. 30, Park said. Some have already opted for early retirement to save jobs. The Salt Lake County Jail is also doing what it can to hire Tooele corrections officers. They are a valuable commodity, Park said, because it usually takes about six months of training to put a new inexperienced hire to work.

"The effect (of the layoffs) is going to be felt out of sight of the public, simply because our crunch is going to be in the jail," he said. "We're making sure we have adequate staff to protect the inmates and protect the staff."

Park did not anticipate any cuts to the patrol or investigations divisions, which already were down to the bare bones, he said. However, the two-member unit specializing in  hazardous materials was eliminated.

"We'll see where this goes. Everybody in county government is feeling the pinch, not just us," the sheriff said.

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