By C.T. Bowen
Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY — The long-time director of Pasco’s trash-to-energy plant has retired abruptly, saying his boss leads through intimidation and hostility and is attempting to steer the county’s future trash disposal to an out-of-county landfill.
Burying, rather than burning solid waste contradicts the county’s comprehensive land-use plan and a 1990 ordinance directing trash to the resource recovery plant in Shady Hills. That’s what solid waste director John Power wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to his boss, Cloyd "Flip’’ Mellinger, assistant county administrator for infrastructure.
Mellinger earlier had chastised Power in a disciplinary form and ordered him to lock in "landfill space for our future use’’ by working on a potential regional solid waste authority with Marion and Alachua counties.
The dispute comes amid a county effort to delay a potential expansion of Pasco’s trash-to-energy plant. The incinerator — approved by 75 percent of the voters in a 1984 straw ballot referendum — opened in 1991 and can process 1,050 tons of trash daily. Last year, Mellinger warned county commissioners that without a substantial increase in recycling, the incinerator would outgrow its capacity and likely need to be expanded over the next seven years. Mellinger said cost estimates for the expansion range as high as $190 million.
Power’s retirement — he remains on the payroll until Feb. 23 — came after a Jan. 10 discipline report in which Mellinger suspended the solid waste director for five days without pay for failing to coordinate with other counties on a proposed regional authority to dispose of trash at a privately owned landfill in Sumter County.
That landfill in Bushnell is owned by a company called ACMS Inc., and the directors include former Citrus County sheriff and state Sen. Charlie Dean. His son, Charles Dean Jr., is company president. The financial beneficiary of a regional sold waste authority could be Marion County, Mellinger’s former employer.
The younger Dean told the Ocala Star Banner in December 2011 that Marion was well positioned to realize profits from other users of the ACMS landfill if it lead a regional solid waste authority. The comments came a day before Marion County approved a deal to pay the company $20 million to bury the county’s trash there for 30 years. It equated to a guaranteed disposal rate of $8 a ton over the life of the deal at a time others were paying an average of more than $40 a ton to bury household trash, the newspaper reported.
Essentially, Marion County pre-paid for its future disposal, and ACMS received a windfall to develop the landfill.
Two Pasco commissioners, Chairman Mike Wells Jr. and Mike Moore, said they were unaware of the idea of a regional waste authority.
"We need to stop putting trash in the ground. We need to focus on expanding the incinerator and expanding recycling,’’ said Wells, whose father was on the commission when the resource recovery plant opened. "I would listen to it (regional authority), but you would have hard time selling me on that.’’
According to the disciplinary form, Mellinger said he directed Power three times over a two-year period to "engage a workgroup’’ of Marion, Alachua and other governments exploring the authority. Power declined to complete a survey from a consultant working on the project, said he would put nothing in writing and was not interested in the effort, Mellinger wrote.
"The fact that you failed to put anything in writing seems deceitful and your response is directly opposed to my instruction,’’ Mellinger wrote. "The survey was simply a fact-finding effort to develop feasibility. There was no obligation or commitment. You have stated that you were concerned, but I find your concerns unjustified.’’
In an interview, Power said he called the consultant directly to answer the questions which surrounded waste capacity and whether the county was interested in being part owner of a regional landfill.
Power eventually completed the written survey and was directed by Mellinger "to remain engaged in this exploration of feasibility and keep me posted regularly on progress. It is our responsibility to look for best solid waste solutions for the citizens of Pasco County. We cannot maintain a singular focus on waste to energy. Get involved in the recycling effort and this opportunity to lock in landfill space for our future use.’’
Power responded in a resignation letter announcing his retirement.
"The regional solid waste authority envisioned by your former employer is singularly focused on purchasing a landfill. Pursuing participation in a regional solid waste authority (including a financial commitment from Pasco County) that will rely on long-term landfilling is clearly not consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, deviates from the long-standing priorities established by the Board of County Commissioners and stands in stark contrast’’ to the county’s code of ordinances.
The disciplinary action "against me for not participating in an effort that is inconsistent with the county’s priorities, policies, plans and ordinance is evidence of the intimidation and hostility that exists through the utilities department and which in no small measure compels me to resign my position.’’
Separately, the two also sparred over selection of engineering and regulatory-assistance consultants, with Mellinger saying the work should be spread around, and Power noting the county moved away from a single provider in 2014 and the competition had resulted in a $400,000 annual savings.
Mellinger, asked about the contents of Power’s letter, responded in an email:
"I directed Mr. Power to explore all solid waste options that would best serve the citizens of Pasco County. The Pasco Board of County Commissioners’ directive to decrease landfill space and put more emphasis on recycling and waste-to-energy solutions was part of a comprehensive plan initiative dating as far back as 30 years, during a much less populated time. Mr. Power regretfully chose to retire over seeking alternative solutions.’’ He did not comment on the allegation of hostility and intimidation.
Power, 63, became solid waste director in 2001, and his current annual salary is $119,090. Former County Administrator Michele Baker hired Mellinger from Marion County in 2015 to replace the retiring Bruce Kennedy as assistant county administrator for utilities. County Administrator Dan Biles expanded Mellinger’s duties to include all infrastructure.
Since he joined Pasco County, Mellinger twice gave Power glowing annual evaluations including an October 2017 review in which Mellinger complimented Power for treating people with respect, being innovative, administering consultant contracts without complaint and accepting "nothing but the highest standards from his team and contractors, produces results.’’
A year earlier Mellinger wrote that Power "keeps his finger on the pulse of the organization, understands political sensitivities, makes sound leadership decisions.’’
Two days after Power hand-delivered his resignation letter, Mellinger registered a new company with the state of Florida – Mellinger Environmental LLC. Mellinger said Power’s departure and the new company are unrelated.
Reach C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2