Capping a career in the trenches
Gail Frie has worn a lot of hats in his life. He’s been a farmer, school bus driver, business owner, county board supervisor, politician and most recently, the Monroe County solid waste director. But one thing he’s never been is retired.
On June 26, “Garbage Gail” as he jestingly refers to himself, added that hat to his collection when he left the Ridgeville Landfill Friday, June 6, for the last time as an employee of Monroe County.
The 69-year-old Frie said he’s enjoyed working for the county for the past 11-plus years and it took a serious health scare to make him understand that he should retire before reaching 70. While he’s healthy now, he said “never take your good health for granted because a lot of times no warning signs or symptoms are apparent.”
Frie started with the county in 2008, after being lured away from Vernon County where he was the solid waste director for 19 years. Before that, he operated a dairy farm near Fountain City, where at 30 years old he also served as Buffalo County’s youngest county board supervisor.
On top of that, and a school bus driving gig, Frie ran a soil testing business, which led him into the solid waste field. Vernon County hired him to run its department when he was 40 years old. While he was working there, he took two shots at Wisconsin’s 96th Assembly seat and only barely lost both races, the second of which was decided by only a handful of votes.
Frie said he was recruited to come to work for Monroe County by the late Sue Van Geertruy, the landfill office assistant who basically ran the daily operation of the landfill because the manager was also the Highway Department head and didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the operation.
“I had worked as the solid waste manager for Vernon County for 19 years starting their recycling program and siting their first NR 500 Sanitary Landfill,” said Frie. “Sue would call me regularly to discuss a variety of regulatory or financial concerns. I planned to come to Monroe County and work a few years and retire. However, somehow over 11 years have passed.”
Frie has accomplished a lot in his tenure with Monroe County, including solving the environmental problems of the closed Ridgeville I landfill by installing a four-acre plastic cap and keeping it pumped dry.
“The results were positive enough that the DNR is no longer requiring us to submit an annual environmental report,” he said.
Frie also doubled the compaction in the current landfill and made a number of other operational improvements to put the Ridgeville II landfill on a strong financial standing footing.
Under Frie, the solid waste department completed the Feasibility Study and Plan of Operation for a landfill expansion, which is considered a new landfill. That will gain the county another 15 to 20 years of providing landfill services to its residents.
To help finance the construction and operation of Ridgeville II the County borrowed $2.5 million at 4% interest. Frie was able to pay off the loan without raising the landfill tip fee. The only times the landfill fees went up in the last 20 years was to cover the increased DNR Landfill taxes.
“So far we have paid all of the development costs of the landfill expansion with current operating funds and I had hoped the construction of the new landfill would also be covered,” said Frie.
However, he pointed out the new landfill will have better environmental protections, which increases its cost. Design improvements have added over $440,000 to the cost of the next landfill. In April, the last Solid Waste Committee voted to raise the landfill tip fee by $5 a ton effective Jan. 1, 2021, which gives the landfill’s customers six months to budget for the increase.
Frie is a proven diplomat and has always had a great relationship with the people he’s had to deal with over the years.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank all elected officials and all citizens of Monroe County for giving me the honor of working with them to provide a financially stable landfill service and keep recycling the preferred method of disposal,” he said. “That only works because of the recycling efforts of all citizens and to great collection service provided by Jerry Martel and Modern Disposal Systems.
“I would especially like to thank the landfill neighborhood for putting up with me for the last 11 years. We make every attempt to be a good neighbor but no one really appreciates a landfill next door. Our neighbors understand the importance of the service that we provide and let us know of issues as they arise. This helps us to stay on top of issues and correct them before they become a problem.”
Frie said he feels good about leaving landfill operations in the hands of his successor, David Heser.
“He is a very capable young man with a lot of common sense and good communication skills,” Frie said, noting Heser is backed up by Oakridge Engineering, which is headed up by young but experienced engineers with an old school, “protect the land, air and water” environmental attitude.
Frie said he has no big plans for retirement but is just happy to have control of his own time again. That may be wishful thinking though. His son, who now runs a crop operation on the home farm, has already hinted he needs help. He might have to invest in a hired-hand hat.