GUEST COMMENTARY: Columbia should get out of trash collection business

Monday, July 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

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.

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Cecil Caulkins July 16, 2012 | 6:48 a.m.

Jefferson City has its trash collected by a private company -- has had for as long as I'm aware -- and it works out very well. It's a model the Columbia city council might examine.

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Ellis Smith July 16, 2012 | 7:51 a.m.

In many cities that have municipal trash collection the collection of waste from businesses is privately contracted. Operationally that makes sense, because the needs of businesses (for example, restaurants) aren't the same as for residential pick up.

Today's attempt at humor: In one city here in the Midwest there is a successful waste hauling contractor that's been in business for decades and is called ARTISTIC DISPOSAL. What visions of refuse handling does THAT conjure up?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 16, 2012 | 7:57 a.m.

Ellis: What visions of refuse handling does THAT conjure up?

I dunno, but I still chuckle at the motto of a company (some other state, during vacation) that rented out portable johns:

"We're #1 in the #2 business!"

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 16, 2012 | 8:28 a.m.

Pella, Iowa is one of the most highly industrialized, but also one of the more attractive, Midwest towns. There are two principal industries: Pella Corporation, national purveyor of wood windows and doors, and Vermeer, manufacturer of farm implements. I believe Vermeer had the original patent on hay balers that produce round bales. (There's a third manufacturer, Van Gorp, making industrial pulleys. I've seen Van Gorp pulleys in Argentina.)

Vermeer's shops are huge; you can see them at a distance from the highway. My late wife liked to imagine their output wasn't farm implements but was fake Vermeer paintings, sold to unwary museums and private collectors.

I once dated a Pella girl named Mary Vander Zee.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble July 16, 2012 | 1:25 p.m.

Overall, this seems to me as a solution in search of a problem. I've lived in Columbia most of my life, and I've always been satisfied with the trash collection service that the city provides. It's reliable, thorough, and I've seen many occasions where the not-for-profit, human-based service has been able to handle specific situations in creative and accommodating ways.

These days, I like that I have friendly public trash collectors who wave and honk the horn for my little boy when he runs out to see them work. In a similar vein, I also like that we're friends with our postal carrier, who provides excellent service. These things are benefits. I like knowing that this service is providing jobs and benefits to a group of people who are opting to do the work we don't want to do, working for an establishment that is less driven by pure profit.

In the rush to save costs (which usually results in increased costs for the consumer) and increase efficiency (which usually only shows up on a balance sheet), I think we tend to forget what makes a community.

Spellman's comment, "with the existing paradigm, his preferences will ultimately yield to that of the collective, regardless of whether he likes it," is interesting. I think the "collective" is not asking for any changes at all, and would place this very low on any list of concerns for the city. Let's work on what's broken before tampering with what works, and works very well.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 16, 2012 | 2:11 p.m.

Kevin, your assertion that most people don't want change seems to put the city's proposed switch to automated trash trucks in peril, does it not?

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Ellis Smith July 16, 2012 | 2:38 p.m.

Kevin & John:

I'm going to stick with what I've previously said: I don't think most Columbians understand what, operationally, is involved and what potential problems there are. A 15-20 minute video, made where the system is now used, would show both its advantages and limitations. Let the public understand, then make a choice.

Too logical?

I'll go along with Kevin in that not changing the present system would hardly be the end of the world.

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady July 16, 2012 | 5:23 p.m.

Although I live in Columbia, I know a lot of Jeff Citians, and from what I've heard over the last few years, the privatized trash service in Jeff City is no picnic either. Privatization has a whole new set of problems and issues. Maybe not more, or less, but it will have issues.

Anyone who thinks privatizing trash service will 'depoliticize' it is dreaming. Who gives out the franchise contracts and licenses? Elected officials, that's who.

Finally, I'd just like to say to the gardener who's putting all his organic matter out at the curb: get a compost bin, man!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 17, 2012 | 8:03 a.m.

Ellis Smith wrote:

"I'll go along with Kevin in that not changing the present system would hardly be the end of the world."

I agree. I don't see anything particularly wrong with what we have now. In Tampa, they switched from a can-based system to the automatic trucks in the '90s, and generally, my parent's bins sat at curbside all the time because they weren't easy enough for my elderly and ailing father to wheel back and forth. I know of a neighbor who would be in the same boat. I also don't see how this could be faster than what we have now - collectors can do both sides of the street at once now, where the automatic trucks could not.

Unless the solid waste department has to deal with a LOT of injuries and the resulting claims, I can't see how this would save money or time.

Whether a private hauler could do a better job for cheaper isn't anything we'll know until we actually put service out on bids, or otherwise allow private haulers to operate in the city. I suspect it's more a philosophical argument than a practical one - we probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference if they changed tomorrow.


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