Council hears from critics of trash-district program

County plans to appeal ruling once judge decides damages.

By EVAN YOUNG

St. Louis County ignored opportunities to put the brakes on its trash-district program that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars after a recent court decision, an attorney told the County Council last week.

Attorney Jane Dueker of Stinson Morrison Hecker was one of nearly a dozen speakers who criticized the county’s trash-district program during a period for public comment at the Sept. 28 council meeting.

The meeting was the council’s first since a county circuit judge ruled in favor of three waste haulers that sued the county in 2008 over its establishment of eight trash districts in unincorporated areas.

Judge Barbara Wallace ruled Sept. 23 the county breached an implied contract with the haulers when it failed to provide two years’ notification, as required by Missouri law, before implementing the program.

The haulers — American Eagle Waste Industries, Meridian Waste and Waste Management of Missouri — did not win contracts in 2008 to serve the trash districts exclusively and are prohibited from offering service to district residents. The contracts were awarded through competitive bidding to Allied Services, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services.

The county plans to appeal the case once Wallace decides on damages owed the haulers. Some estimate the judgment against the county will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

But Dueker, the three waste haulers’ attorney, told the council last week the lawsuit was preventable.

Upon passage of the state statute in 2007 requiring the two-year notification, county officials could have sought a declaratory judgment from a court to determine if the law retroactively applied to them, “which is what we’ve been litigating for the past two and a half years,” Dueker said.

“That could have all been done beforehand, or before anybody had to be paid, and before anybody had to lose customers and lose their businesses,” Dueker said, adding that small county haulers have lost an estimated 60,000 customers as a result of the trash program.

Dueker said shortly before filing the haulers’ lawsuit, she even encouraged the county to try a pilot program with only one trash district to “see how it goes.”

“I think part of the policy behind this is we move slow. We don’t destroy markets and we don’t destroy businesses without thinking about it,” she said, adding, “And I do think there were plenty of times … to have this decided differently before it cost money. But the haulers were damaged.”

County Counselor Patricia Redington contended that the county did, in fact, initially receive a favorable ruling on its trash program when Circuit Judge Steven Goldman dismissed the haulers’ lawsuit in June 2008. The state appellate court, however, later ruled the two-year notice provision applied to the county and reversed Goldman’s decision.

American Eagle Waste owner Bryan Barcom told the council last week he asked three years ago that the trash program be put to a vote. County officials’ response, Barcom said, was that it would be too expensive to put on the ballot.

“Three years later, what’s it gonna cost the county now?” Barcom said, adding, “You’re up here to represent not your district but every single person in St. Louis County. And you failed. And you failed real big. And you want to make us out to be the bad guys, to say we’re out for money. We’re not out for money. What we’re doing is we’re (telling) every single government entity from Missouri to wherever: You’re going to follow the law. And you’re gonna follow it, or you’re gonna pay. Period.”

Three other lawsuits have been filed against the county regarding the trash program. North county resident Greg Porter, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that seeks a vote on the trash districts, contends County Executive Charlie Dooley and his administration were the “masterminds of this scheme.”

“Something smells like trash in unincorporated St. Louis County to me and many others,” Porter told the council last week.

Bill Corrigan, the Republican seeking to oust Dooley, a Democrat, as county executive in the Nov. 2 election, told the council taxpayers are “fed up” with the trash program. He quoted an April 2008 Missouri Attorney General’s opinion that stated the county must provide the two-year notice to haulers.

“Tonight we stand in a situation where the county and taxpayers are exposed to millions, perhaps tens of millions, of dollars in damages because of the unlawful conduct of this administration,” Corrigan said. “I hope to have the opportunity to fight for the St. Louis County taxpayers beginning on Jan. 1, 2011.”

Some council members later defended the trash-district program. Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, contended the districts have provided residents with the best possible trash service, all the while saving the county “over $4 million a year.”

He said he appreciated those in the audience who had true concerns about the trash program and did not come to the meeting “for political gain.”

Second District Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland — a longtime supporter of the trash districts — said those who oppose the program should remember it was crafted by the county health department and former council members. It then was unanimously approved by a Republican-controlled council, she added.

“I want to make perfectly clear when you’re throwing these, these darts and arrows. If you want to throw them, then throw them at members of the council. Do not throw them at the county executive,” Burkett told the audience.

She said to Dueker, “Frankly, I know that you get paid by your clients. That’s what you’re here to do. But I did not appreciate what you had to say. That’s just me personally. I did not appreciate it.”