$300,000 to study the food waste digester?

News item: Dane County selects firm to study building food waste digester facility. Can I ask a humble question about the $300,000 the County will spend on this study?

Is it really necessary?

We've got the social-state Europeans telling us to cool it with the deficit spending. We've got a Congress that is so afraid to reveal what's in its FY 2011 budget, it refuses to release the gory details before the mid-term elections. We've got politicians falling all over themselves trying to convince the voters they really are the voice of fiscal reason — really meaning it this time — and Dane County is evidently prepared to drop 300 Gs to study the viability of turning food waste into "green-generated" electricity.

Don't we already know the answer to this viability question (yes) and if we really need further validation, why can't we do this more economically? I realize that County Executive Kathleen Falk is frugal, meaning she is pretty smart with the taxpayer's money, not cheap. That's one of the things people love about her, but taxpayer-funded studies can get out of hand, especially during a recession.

Given the intellectual capital we have at our disposal — this sounds like the kind of thing a UW-Madison professor and his or her class could review in about one month, free of charge — aren't there more affordable options at our, ahem, disposal?

There is plenty of underused economic development talent at the City of Madison. Michael Gay and Tim Cooley, who must feels like the Maytag repairmen in the sense that their advice often falls on deaf ears, could probably tackle this on a shared-cost basis.

The County says that AECOM, the engineering company chosen to do the work, will examine the viability of turning thousands of tons of food waste each year into millions of dollars of green-generated electricity. Yet don't we already know there are financial benefits to renewable energy, given the handful that already operate nationally?

True, that's not a massive body of evidence, but it should be enough to confirm both financial and environmental benefits — reducing waste brought the landfill — of recycling locally produced food waste.

What's more, the county cited WalMart's plans to roll out its own national food waste recycling program, so if the world's largest retailer is sold on the idea, sold enough to put its capital at risk at a time when its U.S. sales have been sluggish, what more do we have to learn about the viability question?

So if food waste recycling is becoming a national trend, why not apply the $300,000 to actually get the facility up and running? Use a less expensive option to quantify the benefits.

I'm not claiming the county's decision is irresponsible. The contract, which must be approved by the county board before Falk signs it, was awarded as part of a competitive process, and given the disaster that's unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, anything we can do to advance renewable energy is a wise investment. But when our fiscal health at all levels of government is impacted by lower tax collections, should we be trying to prove a point that already has been proven?

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.