Remembering one of Columbus' worst ideas

Editor’s note: Tom Moody was a forward-thinking municipal leader—perhaps too forward-thinking. The late Columbus mayor and his allies made a monumental mistake when they pushed the city to build a power plant unlike any other in the country. That proposal, a trash-burning power plant, was a $440 million civic debacle that city taxpayers were still paying off in 2010, 16 years after the plant closed following 11 years of technical, environmental and financial problems. In 1977, Columbus Monthly explored the controversy swirling around Moody’s big idea. 

Mayor Tom Moody has never seemed like a fellow who'd put the family savings into anything much riskier than one of the safer Dow Jones Industrials. And he isn't especially known for taking a controversial position and defending it against all comers. Not that he backs off from a fight; he's just normally a deliberate, cautious administrator who likes to think out rather than fight out disagreements.

Yet today Moody is firmly, doggedly, almost defiantly standing behind his proposal to build a city power plant that would use trash for fuel. And, for the second year in a row, he is doing it despite the openly-expressed convictions of some of his staunchest political supporters that the plant is far too risky venture for the citizens of Columbus to invest in. The voters said no in 1976—by a narrow 12,000-vote margin—but apparently on this issue Moody is not about to take no for an answer. 

The proposed electric plant has become one of the more controversial issues to hit this city in a long time. It has split much of the local power structure in half, with Moody and The Columbus Dispatch solidly on the affirmative side and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the Columbus Industrial Association and Columbus & Southern Ohio Electric Company (CSOE) opposed. The argument has become heated at times, and promises to be more so, with the Dispatch missing few opportunities to put in an editorial plug for the new power plant—even leveling some unusually harsh criticism at the Chamber for its opposition. 

For its part, the Chamber has taken a stance of “passive opposition" to the plant, meaning that they aren't spending any money to fight it. But they aren't making any secret of the fact they think it makes lousy business sense. And Columbus Southern (Columbus & Southern finally dropped that awkward ampersand from its new logo) has made a great show of sitting on its corporate hands on the power plant issue. Even so, CSOE fingerprints are everywhere in the work of the plant's opposition. This is not surprising, since Columbus Southern and the city's Division of Electricity have been at odds ever since the private utility was chartered. The electricity division runs the small existing city power plant, which was built before CSOE went into business. It would also run the new plant. 

CSOE has always had an eye out for an opportunity to take over service to the city plant's 7,000 customers—mostly residential but also including some businesses scattered around the city, such as Timken, Yenkin-Majestic Paints, Galbreath Mortgage, the downtown Holiday Inn, Loews Theatre on Morse Road and The Dispatch. Publicly, the giant utility swears the city plant is too small to be significant competition.

With much of the top leadership in the community divided on whether to build the new power plant, an informed decision is going to be unusually hard for voters to make by Nov. 8, when they will vote on whether the city should go ahead or not. The arguments for building or not building are exceedingly complex and require predictions about what will be good for the city 20 years from now. For every question raised by the opponents, the Moody Administration comes up with an answer. But following every answer comes another question ... and another ... and another. Whom to believe? That is the problem facing the voters.

Cost is one factor. Everyone admits a $117.8 million plant is very expensive. And it's hard not to believe that there is considerable risk when a plant just like it has never been built before. “If you want to be a pioneer, do you want to be a pioneer for $117 million?" asks Jim Thomas, research director of the Chamber.

But listen to the mayor, who is positive that turning garbage into electricity is the right thing for the city to do. “I don't want to make a $117 million mistake for the city," says Moody, "The plant here would be pioneering only in the sense that it's a combination of proven technologies. It's the same kind of experiment as adding two stories to a building.” 

Moody says his decision to back the power plant was coolly rational and not based on any desire to put his stamp on Columbus for years to come. "I am not on a crusade," he says. “I'm not in this business to build a monument, and if I were, this isn't one I'd choose. I settled on this plant as the best solution competent advisers could give me for three different problems.”

The three problems are what to do with the existing city light plant, what to do with growing piles of trash, and how to get and pay for more street lighting. The new power plant would continue to supply electricity to the customers now receiving city power by burning a mixture of coal and trash. It would burn all the city's residential trash, half its commercial and industrial trash and half of Franklin County's trash. Based on Moody's figures, it is supposed to make enough money not only to repay its high capital costs, but to finance installation of street lights in many areas of the city that don't have them.

Despite the voter turndown in 1976, Moody thinks the power plant issue can win this time. He thinks voters are more conscious this year both of an energy shortage and of a garbage surplus, and believes that consciousness will make the difference. 

Other people also think the plant has a better chance than last year, but are worried that it will win for the wrong reasons. 

William Habig, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), says it was easy to get initiative petitions signed to get the plant back on the ballot this year because "people want to vote against the private utility." MORPC hasn't taken a position for or against the plant, but Habig says he himself regrets that the climate of antagonism towards CSOE “may blur out some of the real issues, like whether it [the plant] pays for its operation."

There is a basic philosophical question underlying the power plant issue, and that is whether the voters want the city to get more deeply into the electric business simply in order to put pressure on the private utility. People are anti-utility right now, and Habig fears that antagonism may obscure what he refers to as the “real issues" raised by the power plant issue on the ballot: Can the plant be financed and built without major extra costs and delays? Once built, will it operate efficiently? Will there be enough trash to burn? Will it meet environmental standards? Will it really pay for more street lights? Are there other cheaper alternatives that would do the job? 

Moody's answer is an emphatic yes to all but the last question. Others are not so sure. The voters—as is often the case—must wonder, and in the end must make the best decision possible. 

A major criticism is that the plant may not be able to get enough trash to fuel it cheaply. The plant is intended to burn a mixture of pulverized trash and coal. A crucial assumption necessary to justify the plant's high capital cost is that there will be substantial savings on fuel costs because of the use of large amounts of trash. 

The opponents also are afraid the plant will run into operating problems that make it impossible to make money. A power plant exactly like the one the Moody Administration is proposing for Columbus has never been built anywhere in the country. Plants with similarities to the one planned here have had technical and financial difficulties. Nashville is one city with a trash-fired plant where any number of things have gone wrong. 

Finally, opponents worry that environmental standards set by the federal and state governments will add to plant costs in ways not foreseen by the people who say the plant will be profitable. 

What the opponents' fears add up to is that the cost of paying for the plant might eventually fall on the heads of Columbus property owners. When citizens vote "yes" on the bond issue for the power plant, they will be promising up to a 2.5-mill property tax increase if that should become necessary to back up the bonds. 

The Moody Administration says all the skepticism and the outright antagonism to the power plant are groundless. They say projections show there will be enough trash. They say they are familiar with the difficulties encountered by similar plants and aren't about to make mistakes other communities have. They say environmental standards will be met.

And Moody promises that property taxes will not have to be raised to pay off the bonds. Henry Bell, superintendent of the City Division of Electricity, puts it more strongly: "You'd have to have the Russians dynamite the plant to require that 2.5-mill tax levy." 

Bell has a lot to gain if the bond issue for the power plant is approved. The 50 megawatt plant he is now running is barely limping along. The new plant could handle 90MW. The trash-burning plant would give a big boost to the importance of the division, even though most of the increased electricity would be used by the city, not by private customers. 

The city has since 1968 been buying most of its power wholesale from CSOE and then selling it retail to its customers. The age of the equipment, the cost of fuel, and problems meeting air pollution standards have made it cheaper to buy the power than to generate it at the old plant. 

Columbus Southern wouldn't mind if the existing plant shut down entirely and no replacement were built. But the company's official position on the proposed new plant is one of non-involvement. 

"We don't happen to think it's a good idea," says Robert Sisinger, CSOE vice president of corporate affairs and chief public relations spokesman. “But if the people want it, we aren't going to oppose it." 

Columbus Southern doesn't have to oppose the power plant in public to make its views known. The firm has a number of people in influential spots who, no matter how subtly, manage to get the utility company's position known. Ben Ray, president of CSOE, is a member of the board of directors of the Chamber. The company also is a prominent member of the Columbus Industrial Association, which has been one of the noisiest critics of the proposed plant. There also is Jerry Hammond, simultaneously a member of City Council and an employee of CSOE. He works for Sisinger, in fact. Hammond agrees with the official company position, and has twice voted in Council to put the issue on the ballot. Hammond says he personally is opposed to the proposed facility, and when asked will give a list of reasons why the new plant should not be built. 

It may be true that the city Division of Electricity is a relatively minor annoyance to CSOE. Only 4 percent of all the electricity consumed in Columbus is supplied through the city light plant, with the city itself using most of that: But to the division, Columbus Southern is a constant threat to survival. And it is no secret that Bell would very much like to stay in business. "Competition sharpens the noses of both players,” says Bell. He believes the division has been a self-reliant provider of a valuable service to Columbus without ever being a threat to the private utility.

If the power plant issue does not go through, the days of self-reliance may be gone for good, because next year the existing plant most likely will not be generating any electricity, according to Bell.

What to do about the existing municipal light plant has been a problem for some time. Authorization for a plant was written into the City Charter in 1897. The first need was for street lights only and therefore the plant operated only at night. Eventually it was decided that it made financial sense to run the plant around the clock, and so commercial customers began to be served in 1910. Today the plant, located just west of downtown on Dublin Road, is "ancient and inadequate,” according to the mayor and others. Moody says the question of whether it should be scrapped, as many municipal plants have been, has been around at least since 1961.

Columbus is not alone in having a municipal power plant or in having trouble deciding whether to keep it.

The high point of municipal power plants in the United States was in the 1920s, according to one book on the subject. At that time there were more than 3,000 such plants. But by 1968 the number had fallen to around 2,000.

Cleveland is one of the cities currently in the process of getting rid of its municipal plant. At the same time Columbus voters will be deciding whether to vote in a new trash burning plant, Cleveland voters will decide whether to sell theirs, although the only likely buyer is Cleveland Electric Illuminating, the Cleveland equivalent of CSOE.

Moody says it was Columbus Southern that first called his attention to the municipal plant's problems, way back in 1961 when representatives of the utility called on him and other candidates for City Council.

“The Division of Electricity was a thorn in their side," says the mayor. He recalls that CSOE suggested it would be a nice trade if the city would get out of the electricity business and get into the bus business. CSOE was then owner of the Columbus bus system and was having, Moody says, capital, operational and public relations problems with it. Moody says the private utility offered to pay $50,000 to finance a study of the municipal power plant.

CSOE president Ray agrees that the city power plant has been a thorn in his company's side. He thinks the division gets breaks that it shouldn't. He cites as an example the area of the city where Thurber Village is now. 

“We were compelled to serve that slum area [before Thurber Village was built]," says Ray. "Now it's good business. The city wanted that service and got it." 

"We don't consider it [the city plant] competition," Ray said. But, in the same conversation a couple of minutes later, he reversed himself. “We cooperate with the city electric division," he said. “But they're competitive, and competition causes people to have other thoughts. We don't think they should be subsidized." 

Mayor Moody says that he fully expected the 1961 study of the Division of Electricity, which ended up being paid for by the city, to show that Columbus should get out of the electricity business. Instead the final report said the opposite. It concluded that the Division of Electricity was providing a service, would remain viable economically and wouldn't hurt the private sector.

Moody says that in 1971, just after he was elected Mayor, history repeated itself. Again CSOE came to him complaining about the Division of Electricity. According to Moody, they charged that the division was duplicating distribution facilities, competing with private industry and was “a Mickey Mouse operation.” The mayor promised he'd investigate as soon as possible.

The city investigation soon merged with a continuing education project being funded through the Ohio State University School of Public Administration. The idea was for OSU faculty to help city employees become better managers by working with them on specific projects. The city administration promoted the power plant question as a good one to work on, and a task force of OSU people and city people was formed.

The mayor says it was his idea for the task force to look at the problems of solid waste and street lighting along with what to do with the electric plant. He had been to England and Scotland to see how they handle their trash and was impressed with the innovative ways he saw of turning trash into energy. But Moody insists he fully expected the task force to tell him Columbus should scrap its light plant. He says he expected Henry Bell to advocate expansion of his turf, but figured Bell's bias would be neutralized within the task force.

The task force got off to a rocky start. It was riddled with personality conflicts between the city employees and "the book people with their harsh, penetrating questions,” according to Moody.

One task force member confirmed both the conflicts and the initial task force bias against the city's continuing in the electricity business. With the notable exception of Bell, the task force members believed what they were going to do was to show why the city should go out of the electricity business.

The OSU task force speedily concluded that the existing plant was inefficient. Almost as quickly it decided replacement by a conventional plant of about the same size was not a good idea either. But the trash idea took hold. The final report came out in 1974, a two-inch-thick document replete with graphs and charts that concluded that a power plant fueled by solid waste looked technically and economically feasible. As a necessary next step, the task force recommended that the city contract with an engineering firm to do an in-depth study to see if their findings were right. The task force had looked into three possible plant sizes and eventually settled on a 90 megawatt facility as the best. A 60MW plant, they said, would not be able to handle all the garbage it should. A 120MW plant, on the other hand, would generate more electricity than needed by the city's existing customers.

At a cost of $250,000 in city money, Alden E. Stilson and Associates, a Columbus consulting firm, reported in 1975 that either a 60MW or a 90MW plant was economically and technically feasible. The Stilson report said the city should choose which size it wanted and get going on design of the plant.

The city chose 90MW, says Bell, because the Stilson report showed that a 60MW plant would be unable to burn all available trash by 1985. The 90MW plant was projected to be able to dispose of available trash until the year 2000.

Under the plan proposed for Columbus, solid waste would be shredded at three existing pulverizing stations located around the perimeter of the city. The pulverized waste, more homogeneous than the original and therefore expected to burn more evenly, would be transported to the new plant located on the South Side near the Jackson Pike sewage treatment plant. There it would be burned along with coal, the exact proportion of coal to vary according to the condition of the trash. If there were a lot of wet spring grass cuttings, for example, more coal would be used than if there were a lot of paper. Bell says that generally the proportion would be about 80 per cent trash and 20 per cent coal.

With all signals go within the administration, a bond issue to finance the plant, then estimated to cost $112 million, was placed on the November 1976 ballot.

Then came a snag. The board of directors of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce decided in July. of ’76 to agree with a negative report by its economic policy committee—a report saying the project was too risky and would cost more than alternatives. The committee recommended further study of the plant and especially urged the city to explore the possibility of a joint venture with Columbus Southern.

Just as it did this year, the Chamber voted to oppose the plant, but not to spend money promoting its point of view. But Chamber opposition had an effect. For one thing, according to Henry Bell, the Moody Administration decided to devote no money to a campaign for the issue, fearing that to do otherwise would provoke active opposition. The only funds spent to support the power plant proposal were a few hundred dollars donated by employees within the Division of Electricity, says Bell.

After the bond issue was defeated last November, Columbus Southern lost no time suggesting what Mayor Moody should do next. On Nov. 10, Sisinger wrote the mayor suggesting the city start buying all its power from the private utility. Sisinger said CSOE had plenty of electricity to sell the city—cheaper than the city could produce it. And he said if the city wanted, the company would cooperate in a study of a solid waste disposal system with energy as an end-product—but this time at CSOE facilities. The letter was duplicated and widely distributed by the Columbus Industrial Association. 

Bell says the Sisinger letter was a public relations ploy that didn't reflect the discussions the public and the private utilities had already had on cooperative ventures. But he admits things did not look good at that time for the trash-burning power plant.

Within the Moody Administration there was dissension. Service Director Robert Parkinson had been quoted by several Chamber sources as saying Columbus really didn't have a solid waste problem, just an electricity problem. This, of course, contradicted the mayor's position. 

Finance Director Mike Gable was having his doubts, too. 

“I was uncertain about the power plant project during the winter," says Gable. “It has risks, but lots of advantages. Henry [Bell] is certainly not interested in other alternatives. The mayor, Parkinson and I had a greater appreciation of the multiplicity of problems.” 

Bell, for his part, felt he had been left out on a limb in the election, supporting the power plant with little help from his superiors.

Support from outside the Moody Administration was what finally revived the power plant proposal for a second go-around. The Council of South Side Organizations began collecting signatures to get the issue back on the ballot, and the bone-chilling weather of last winter and the accompanying anger against utilities, whether gas or electric, helped them in their quest. The council represents 25 organizations in the area served by the municipal light plant. Since customers of the municipal plant pay from 1 to 5 percent less for their electricity than customers of CSOE, according to Henry Bell, the council’s members have a direct self-interest in keeping the city in the electricity business.

Another factor in keeping the power plant alive was The Dispatch, which even in December managed to come up with a lead editorial promoting the facility. Another editorial in May boosted the power plant further, while chiding the Moody Administration, saying, “Columbus city officials are taking a more positive approach to a proposed trash-coal generating plant than they did last fall. And well they should.”

The Dispatch’s public love affair with the power plant proposal is viewed with skepticism in some circles, and even a few supporters feel the paper has engaged in some overkill in promoting the facility. “Every time they get the chance, The Dispatch sends a reporter running down to Henry Bell to get material to bolster the plant,” says one power plant advocate.

The Dispatch is one of the few commercial customers using both Columbus Southern and the city’s existing electrical power supply. “I don’t want to comment on that,” said Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, when asked how much city power the paper uses, although he admitted The Dispatch uses “some” city electricity. One person associated with the Chamber said the paper’s use of city power is an important reason for its strong editorial endorsement of the new plant. “The Dispatch wants to continue to have municipal power available as a backup, in case Columbus Southern has a blackout,” he said. 

Whatever, the paper’s support is seen as crucial to any hopes for passage. “If it weren’t for The Dispatch, the plant proposal would have been decisively defeated last year,” said Paul Craig, professor of public adminstration at Ohio State University and one of the faculty members who helped prepare the OSU report. “As it is, there has been just barely enough support to keep it alive.”

It's alive, all right, at least through the first week in November. But its survival beyond the election will depend on whether Moody and The Dispatch can do a better job of counteracting the same opposition the power plant had last year and win voter approval. The Chamber's board of directors voted again to oppose the plant on Aug. 12, the same day Moody and Parkinson appeared before the group to give one final sales pitch. SCOE's Ray attended the meeting, but says he only went because the chairman asked him to. He didn't participate in the discus sion and abstained from voting. 

The reasons given for the Chamber's opposition are the same as last year, mostly straightforward financial ones. "If you ask an engineer whether he can do something, he'll say 'yes,' ” says Jim Thomas of the Chamber staff. “But for what price?" 

One relatively hidden issue that comes up in discussions with Chamber members concerns city Service Director Robert Parkinson. Some ask whether Parkinson will be able to supervise construction of the plant in addition to all his other projects. The official position of the Chamber is a diplomatic one: It has great confidence in Parkinson's abilities but is worried that he is overworked.

What the Chamber is really talking about, one source close to the situation says, is Parkinson's competence. It is an issue that causes Parkinson merely to chuckle, and raises Moody's ire. “The Chamber always raises that issue with the greatest deference," Moody says angrily, adding that if the Chamber is really interested in improving municipal government it should look at management problems throughout the city bureaucracy and not pick on Parkinson.

A major criticism by plant opponents is that the Moody Administration did not consider all possible alternatives in deciding that the trash-burning power plant should be built. Most of the alternatives that critics suggest would get away from the three-in-one package and concentrate on only one of the three problems the plant is supposed to solve.

A suggestion made by Chamber people is that the city simply purchase all power from CSOE. But Moody says it would be "absurd" for the city to purchase power wholesale and sell it retail without providing even the peak load capacity the city plant is now being used for. To purchase all power, he said "would make the city a government parasite on a legitimate business."

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a suggestion by Tom Kaplin, a plant opponent and prominent local Democrat, that what Columbus should have is a much larger plant, say 300MW, fueled by coal only. He thinks such a plant could be used to supply cheap electricity to all government and quasi-government buildings in Columbus, such as schools and metropolitan housing, thus saving tax dollars.

Wilpen Gorr, associate professor of public administration at Ohio State and a member of the OSU task force, thinks a trash-burning plant is a good idea, but that the best bet for the Moody Administration would have been to go with a 60MW plant rather than a 90MW plant. This would eliminate the question of whether there would really be enough solid waste for fuel. "You read the Stilson report and the 60MW plant comes through like a champion," says Gorr, an engineer. “It's just as feasible and it burns all of Columbus' trash.”

But here, too, the argument goes round and round, with no one agreeing. Moody says the 60MW plant would be too small, and thinks the other suggestions that have been made are plain foolish. 

"From the [plant's] opponents, I've heard nothing but questions, innuendos and naive suggestions," says Moody. "The question of risk is a legitimate one for the Chamber to examine but they haven't examined it. They're looking at it too narrowly. You can't look at the plant by itself. The Chamber ignores the cost of street lights and land filling."

Moody doesn't think any more work has to be done on the question of what to do about electricity, solid waste and street lights for the city.

"Further study is needed by the Chamber," says Moody, "But it's been done as far as I'm concerned."

He'll find out soon enough whether the voters agree.

This story originally appeared in the October 1977 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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