Monday, April 12, 2010

St. Louis County Trash Wars: The Sequel

One person’s garbage is another’s bread and butter. In a nutshell, that is what’s behind the long-running “trash wars” of St. Louis County. Now the Missouri Supreme Court even got into the fray.

In 2007, St. Louis County government began awarding exclusive contracts to collect trash in unincorporated parts of its jurisdiction. After many delays, the new contracts went into effect. A dozen other firms were, if you’ll pardon the expression, dumped.

And they want their customers back. Thanks to a couple of apparent goofs by county officials, they may get their wish.

Had County Executive Charlie A. Dooley and the County Council showed more patience, they might have pulled off this transition without a hitch. Instead, the county continues to face a big mess in the garbage business and millions of dollars in potential damages. Meanwhile, no one is sure who can haul what trash from where.

Some background: Until 2007, a free market existed for trash-hauling in unincorporated St. Louis County, areas that lay outside the boundaries of municipalities. As many as 20 haulers competed for customers among the 104,000 households. Customers could hire their own trash collector or band together with neighbors to negotiate a deal.

The mess theorists pointed out the inefficiency of having noisy trucks from several haulers serving the same streets. Free-marketers claimed the system supplied an incentive for good service, since a citizen could fire a hauler who under-performed.

Even though many residents, particularly in unincorporated South County, turned out to feel passionately about their favorite trash companies, Mr. Dooley and the County Council divided the county into eight districts and declared that a single hauler would have exclusive rights in each one.

But the spurned companies were not without clout. They convinced the Missouri Legislature to enact a law requiring two-years’ notice before a county government could switch to exclusive contracts. They argued that haulers have a big investment and lots of employees at stake, and that they need time to adjust before government snatches away business.

Missouri Attorney General and now Governor, Jay Nixon’s office opined that counties had to comply with that law. And although the Legislature’s action clearly was aimed at St. Louis County, Mr. Dooley maintained that St. Louis County’s home rule charter made it exempt. The county went ahead with its plan and awarded contracts to low bidders.

The losing haulers sued, and a state Court of Appeals ruled that the county had to respect the new law’s two-year waiting period. Meanwhile, the county forgot to establish penalties for haulers who sign up customers in the exclusive territories in violation of exclusive contracts.

The result has been confusion. Losing haulers are trying to entice their previous customers back into the fold, while haulers who thought they had exclusive contracts are discovering that they don’t.

Meanwhile, a second lawsuit lurks, this one claiming that setting up garbage districts requires a popular vote. Now, the entire mess is headed for the Missouri Supreme Court. (Actually today there are four law suits pending)

This could get awfully expensive for the county. One losing hauler, Waste Management Inc., says it expects to lose $65 million in business over two years as a result of the changes. “We had to park trucks and lay off over 60 employees,” says a spokeswoman. “It could be damages that we’ll ask for.”

To top off the confusion, subdivisions representing a quarter of the eligible households opted out of the county plan, which means there still will be plenty of garbage trucks rumbling around.

In theory, the county’s garbage takeover might be a good idea. The winning bidders are charging $11 to $13 a month, which is several dollars cheaper than most of the former haulers, and the new service includes weekly recycling and trash pickups and two bulk pickups a year.

But Mr. Dooley and the council never effectively made their case, and now they’ve run into a legal minefield. They should pick their way out carefully and try again.


Here's the surprise ending. The above article was printed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on Oct. 27, 2008. It reads as if it were printed yesterday.

By Editorial Board, St. Louis Post Dispatch


  1. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Regardless of the outcome. The taxpayers have lost, and will continue to loose.
    The cost will go on and on. Now that much of the competition is gone, and the large national companies now control, the future bid prices will rise quickly. Soon, we will be paying more for waste and recycle services, than cable TV.
    This project was a huge blunder, and we are all paying for it.
    Heads should roll over this mishandling and mismangement.

  2. Anonymous5:08 PM

    Don't count the competition out just yet, as it is not gone! They are just waiting in the wings for this thing to come back to them, as it should. Yes, it may cost you a little more, but isn't GOOD, DEPENDABLE service worth a little more money?

  3. Anonymous7:49 AM

    St. Louis County Community meeting
    Wednesday, April 21, 6:30 to 8:30
    Hazelwood Central High School, 15875 New Hallsferry

    For more info, contact St. Louis County 314-615-2520

  4. Anonymous11:59 AM

    I live on a small street. The old way had 3 different companies coming down the street five days a week with their big loud trucks.

    Trash was out all week in front of different houses depending when your particular company was scheduled to pickup.

    My bill is lower and the company servicing my area has been great.

    Maybe all of this could have been executed better however, it has proved to be a great improvement.

  5. Anonymous1:26 PM

    You may be right about the improvement, but, I bet, if St. Louis County hijacked and stole your company businesses, you would not be very happy about it.
    The bigger question here is, does the government have the right to interfere with private business, without compensating for what they take.
    How would you feel, if the government took over the corner store, the super market, the filling station, the barber???

  6. Anonymous4:14 PM

    Your examples are not the same. I think of trash as a utility. Sure some of the garbage companies lost out. But in the long run it makes sense to not have 5-6 different trucks rumbling down the street every day because everyone in the subdivision wants to use one particular trash company.

  7. Anonymous10:11 AM

    print | close
    St. Louis County trash district opponent urges jury trials
    By Phil Sutin
    Wednesday, Apr. 28 2010

  8. Anonymous12:21 PM

    St. Louis County prepared to go to court for non compliance.