Schneider looks to future after trash-to-ethanol plant plan runs out of gas
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent April 7, 2013 9:12AM
Schneider Town Council president Dick Ludlow talks about the proposed trash to ethanol plant outside the Town Hall Thursday afternoon in Schneider. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 8, 2013 8:48AM
SCHNEIDER — Town officials say they remain disappointed after the announcement late last month that the local construction consortium trying to bring a proposed trash-to-ethanol plant had scrapped its plans.
“It’s a sad situation,” Schneider Town Council President Richard Ludlow said. “That was what we were pinning our whole hopes for improvements on.”
Late last month, SMC LLC pulled out of its efforts to buy the licensing and contract for the proposed trash-to-ethanol plant from Powers Energy of Indiana LLC citing the inability to obtain adequate financing, something that town officials had been hearing for years.
It is expected the Lake County Solid Waste Management District board, which holds the contract with Powers and extended additional time to SMC to the end of the first quarter to move the project forward, will terminate that contract later this month.
Ludlow and the town council have championed the project as a lifeline for the cash-strapped rural community of 277 that operates on an annual budget of $285,000. The trash-to-ethanol plant, if it were to be built, would have meant $5 million to $6 million in water bill revenue for the town alone.
The development would have meant an influx of badly needed cash into the coffers of the 98-year-old town that has long-since seen its heyday pass. Aging infrastructure and a dwindling population tell the tale of the decline that began shortly after the U.S. 41 bypass rerouted the thoroughfare out of the once-bustling downtown district in 1956.
Now called Parrish Avenue, the roadway is quiet with local traffic from residents and the handful of trucks serving the half dozen businesses that still remain.
“There were eight gas stations in town back then,” Ludlow said of when U.S. 41 ran through downtown.
The downtown now is quiet and the tax dollars those gas stations supplied to help run the town have dried up.
Jenny Beier, clerk-treasurer, said the $285,000 budget just is not enough to keep up with the cost of doing business. The water system first went in in 1927 and the sewer system in 1962. The water tower was built in 1962. Routine maintenance of roads, water and sewer lines is difficult. Major repairs, such as replacing an obsolete lift station for the water system, are impossible.
The revenue from the trash-to-ethanol plant would have changed everything, but she is confident the town can move forward without it.
“We didn’t lose anything but just hopes. That’s OK, we’ll make some new ones,” Beier said.
Beier, a third-generation resident, said since she took office last fall she has been working to straighten out the town’s finances, which had been neglected as outlined in routine audits by the Department of Local Government Finance. A water rate study has been completed, and Beier is working with a financial adviser to bring the town into compliance with the DLGF and get it on a stronger footing.
Water rates recently were raised, the first time since 2006, in an effort to bring the utility back into the black and give the town an opportunity to work with banks to refinance existing high-interest rate bond issues dating to the 1980s.
It is those bonds, Ludlow said, that will keep the town from giving up.
“People always say why don’t you just disannex? We can’t,” Ludlow said.
Dissolving the town would hang the bill for those bonds directly on the residents who now are there, he said.
Ludlow said he remains hopeful Powers Energy will move forward on its own with the project once the pilot plant in Vero Beach, Fla., irons out its kinks and begins producing commercial grade ethanol. He is confident that production eventually will happen but is not confident when.
Ludlow said if the contract is canceled, Powers still cam move forward with the project with the town if it is able to secure another trash source.
“There’s no shortage of garbage,” Ludlow said.
Earl Powers, president of Powers Energy, could not be reached for comment.
Beier said she plans to move forward with efforts to make the town the community she remembers as a child.
“It’s just going to be much harder,” Beier said. “We will have to look at more innovative ways.”
Until the LCSWMD board takes action one way or the other later this month, the fate of the pact with the county is unclear. Ludlow said officials also are keeping a close eye on Lake County officials as they ponder enacting an option income tax package.
“We’re just taking it day by day. We are going to try and see what the county is going to do,” he said.