Council chair opposes increasing duration of trash-district contracts

Proposal would reduce cost of trash pickup, official says.

By EVAN YOUNG

The County Council chairman said last week he “vehemently” opposes a proposal from the administration that would lengthen the term of the county’s trash-district contracts.

Chairman Steve Stenger, D-south county, told the Call he planned to vote against the measure, which would increase the duration of the trash-district contracts to five years from three years.

The council was scheduled to take an initial vote on the legislation Tuesday — after the Call went to press. Council Vice Chairman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, is the bill’s sponsor.

In 2008, the county established eight trash districts in unincorporated areas and awarded three waste haulers contracts to serve them exclusively. The contracts will expire Sept. 30.

Officials in County Executive Charlie Dooley’s administration believe the next round of agreements should be longer to save residents money.

“We believe that bid prices for five-year contracts will be lower than for three-year contracts,” wrote Sheryl Hodges, director of highways and traffic and public works, in a letter to Dooley last month. “A five-year contract will allow the contractor to amortize capital expenditures for equipment.”

Each unincorporated household potentially could see five-year savings of $24 to $45 with the new agreements, Hodges wrote, citing interviews with local haulers.

That would equal a potential five-year savings of between $1.9 million and $3.6 million across all 80,366 households the trash districts serve, she wrote. Hodges also noted that 63 percent of county municipalities that contract for waste service have agreements that last five years or longer.

But Stenger said the proposal would move the county’s trash program “one step closer to a monopoly, and it’s one step further away from what I think the people in my district want.”

He also noted the program’s legality currently is being questioned in court. Unincorporated residents and waste haulers have filed a handful of lawsuits that are pending in both county and state courts.

A county circuit judge in January ruled the county owes three waste haulers damages for not providing them two years’ notification that it was establishing trash districts, which is required by Missouri law. A trial on how much in damages is owed tentatively is scheduled for May 31.

“Now’s not really the time to be making changes to a trash program that’s currently the object of litigation,” Stenger said. “It’s not appropriate timing.”

Stenger’s vow to oppose extending the term of the trash district contracts is consistent with his dissenting votes on other issues related to the program.

Most recently, Stenger was the only council member to vote against the reassignment of three trash district contracts from Veolia Environmental Services to Republic Services, or Allied Waste. Veolia in October moved its operations out of the St. Louis area, leaving Allied the exclusive waste hauler for five out of the eight districts.

Stenger said he’d like to do away with the program, but not all of his fellow council members support that goal.

“If I had enough votes on the council, I would dismantle the current program and have a program more suited to my residents,” Stenger said. Unfortunately, he added, “They’re not there.”

Besides extending the term of the trash district contracts, the bill before the council would amend the county’s waste management code so residents can’t avoid having trash pickup by saying they don’t generate waste.

The proposal would tweak the code to read that a trash collection agreement is required at “any occupied premises.” Currently the ordinance requires such an agreement on “premises where waste is generated.”

“Most people recognize that anyone who lives on a piece of property generates some waste …,” County Counselor Patricia Redington told the Call. “But once in a while someone wants to make the claim that they don’t.”

Redington was referring to Concord resident David Skaer, who, representing himself, convinced the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals last June to overturn his county citation for not having trash pickup.

Skaer contended his family recycled everything and didn’t need to set up service with Veolia, his trash-district’s hauler at the time. A county circuit judge found him guilty on the assumption that every household produces some amount of non-recyclable waste. Skaer was fined $50.

But the appellate court reversed the decision, ruling that “whether or not someone could live at a residence and recycle all his or her waste is not a matter of common knowledge, and should not be accepted as such.” It was the county’s burden, the court ruled, to show evidence Skaer generated waste.

“If we were to try to prove that, we could only do that by watching them or getting a search warrant,” Redington said. “We’re not going to be in the business of doing surveillance on people, so we thought this (code amendment) means the same thing.”

Asked if Skaer could be cited again for not having trash service, the county counselor said, “Every day that you don’t have that agreement in effect you could be prosecuted. I don’t know if he’s come up again or not. We do these in batches as we find people who aren’t doing it. If we wanted to prosecute him I guess we could work harder to get evidence of it, but that’s not really the way we want to do business.”

Skaer told the Call on Saturday he hadn’t heard from the county since the appellate court ruled in his favor.

Regardless of the council’s decision on the proposed code amendment, “people can be charged more than once” for not having trash collection, Redington said.

“The whole purpose is to get compliance,” she said. “We’re not trying to get fines from people. I’d be surprised to hear that there’s anyone who went to court and didn’t have the opportunity to sign up, get the service and then don’t pay this fine, which is probably going to cost you more than the service.

“The goal is to say: Sign up. We don’t want to keep issuing citations. Paying the fine isn’t going to take care of the problem; you have to sign up for the service.”