Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Government and Garbage Don't Mix

Full Editorial in St. Louis Post Tuesday, 12/18/07


Trash collection in unincorporated St. Louis County is either:

(a) A fine example of free-market competition; or

(b) A chaotic, expensive, environmentally unfriendly, noisy, stinky, wasteful mess.

The county government, under County Executive Charlie Dooley, holds to the chaotic-mess theory. And so, starting Oct. 1, the county will start hiring the haulers and imposing minimum standards for performance, including a mandate that haulers offer curbside recycling. About a third of the county's 1 million residents will be affected.

Mr. Dooley and the County Council may be right about the mess, but they're getting lots of push-back from those who like the current system, in which up to 20 separate companies compete for business.

There are good arguments on both sides, and that suggests that rather than forcing 106,000 households to switch all at the same time, the county would be smarter to run an experiment: Change a few neighborhoods, and see how well it serves the needs of the affected residents.

In most of our region, municipalities hire the trash haulers that serve the people within their jurisdictions. But in unincorporated St. Louis county, many homeowners sign up with haulers individually. In some neighborhoods, subdivision trustees make the selection. Sometimes residents on a single street may get together and put their business out for bid.

The result of this less-structured system, advocates say, is service at lower prices with higher quality: If homeowners or subdivisions or other smaller groups don't like their garbage collectors, they can fire them. So lids are placed back on the cans, and trash doesn't get strewn about in the pickup process. But Garry Earls, the county's chief operating officer, says this "wild west" system of hiring trash haulers makes a mess out of garbage. Trucks from four different firms may serve a single street, clanking and rattling through the morning calm. Prices in one neighborhood can be very different from those in a similar neighborhood.

Haulers also often charge more for recycling services; as a result, only about 15 percent of homeowners in the unincorporated county bother to sign up. That compares with a 30 percent rate countywide. Less recyling means landfills fill up faster.Under the county's plan, unincorporated areas would be divided into eight waste-management districts. The county would seek bids for the business in each district, although individual subdivisions could opt out.

The county's request for bids would specify one trash pickup and one recycling collection per week, with twice-a-year pickup for bulky items. Of course, the county could impose those requirements without hiring the haulers.

Mr. Earls says that under the county's plan, haulers will vie to underbid each other. "It's almost a no-brainer. The government can do this much better," says Mr. Earls. "We can be the agent of the people in getting them good price and good service."

But critics of the county plan say that companies that are hired will be beholden to the politicians, not to the homeowners, and service will suffer. Smaller hauling firms fear that the big players in the field such as Allied Waste Services and Veolia Environmental Services will get the bulk of the business, and some little guys may go under. They note that Allied already has hired the law firm of Gallop, Johnson & Neuman to lobby on its behalf; John J. Temporiti, who is a former aide to Mr. Dooley and who chairs the state Democratic Party, is of counsel for the firm and has been lobbying for the change.

State Rep. Jim Lembke, R-South County, who has joined some of his constituents in opposing the county's plan, says haulers will hand out political contributions to gain the favor of the politicians who can influence the contracting process. "It will create a political machine," he said. "Whoever has these contracts stands to make millions."No one can know how the county administration's plan will work until it has been tried. But in the face of reasonable doubt, it makes sense to proceed slowly. If all unincorporated areas shift at once, smaller haulers could well be forced out of business after losing their existing customers, making a decision harder to reverse if it proves unworkable or ill-advised.

The county should ask for bids for one district as a pilot project and monitor the results. The county can collect data and residents' reactions as the winning bidder collects the garbage and then be in a position to make a broader decision based on experience, not speculation.

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