I genuinely feel sorry for our public servants sometimes. I admit I felt the pain of the Columbia City Council members while reading the reports of their recent public debate about proposed trash service changes.
The city is looking to save money while keeping service at the same level or, arguably, improving it. One proposal comes from the example of other cities that have switched to large roll carts that trash trucks can mechanically pick up, which would save labor and time.
I understand one citizen expressed concern that as a gardener, he produces a large amount of yard waste, so the new scheme would not be practical for his situation. The proposal might not be practical for several other folks, including the elderly, so this is a valid point. But with the existing paradigm, his preferences will ultimately yield to that of the collective, regardless of whether he likes it.
The city government owns and operates a refuse collection service enterprise. The government claims a monopoly in the city and sets required prices and one-size-fits-all service levels. This is not a criticism, but simply what is.
I lived in town for several years and was largely satisfied with the trash and recycling service. But when I moved north of town three years ago, I had a new experience: shopping for a trash service. Boone County does not have a public trash service, let alone a monopoly, so if I wanted somebody to haul off my trash, I had to find somebody to hire.
I asked a friendly neighbor or two, and they mentioned a few companies that ran routes on our road. I recall calling two of them, then hired one.
Each company offered a slightly different service: day they pick up in my area, types of containers they would deal with, the option of having a trash bin emptied biweekly and even differing procedure for picking up large items. They also competed on price, billing frequency and customer service levels.
I'm not saying the city does a bad job of picking up trash; it's just that most people in town don't know of anything different. But, with the city running it, what recourse does one have if some trash is left littered on the ground from a pickup? Or if the citizen/customer binds up sticks as directed, but the trash man still rejects the package? Or if you want to use different cans/bags than required by law?
With a choice of providers, if one raises its prices or doesn't treat me right or has an unhelpful office attendant, I have a choice of voting with my dollars and hiring a competitor. Competition keeps costs down, and most importantly to gardeners (or anybody, for that matter), depoliticizes trash services.
The city should at least open up the trash collection market to private firms. If people want to hire a different service, they should have the right to do so. Some people would, many likely would not. Ultimately, the city should get out of the trash collection business. Find a good buyer for the trucks and value of the routes and reap the sale price to buffer cuts in other core city services. The city manager and the council have plenty of bigger fish to fry: a comprehensive planning project, an electric utility to run, streets to repair, pension plans to fix, laws to enforce and (literal) fires to put out.
Allow citizens to choose their own service, under their own terms. I feel sorry for those having to mess with the messy, consolidated public process as it is now.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m. He is a member of the Missourian Readers Board. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.