Given a chance to reconsider the damages St. Louis County will pay the trash haulers affected by the county’s establishment of trash districts, Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace handed down a $5.9 million judgment last week.
The award is more than five times larger than the $1.1 million in damages Wallace previously granted the haulers after she first ruled in their favor in 2010. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Wallace’s ruling, but remanded the decision on damages back down to her.
The trash haulers’ suit alleged the county failed to provide the state-required two years’ written notice that it was establishing eight trash districts in unincorporated areas.
“(County officials) kept saying the law didn’t apply to them. They were wrong, and the courts found that they were wrong,” said the haulers’ attorney, Jane Dueker of Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP. “They’re still exhibiting that sort of arrogance now.
“This entire judgment was avoidable, completely, easily, cost-free avoidable.”
Now that Wallace has ruled, the county will appeal the judgment, said county Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls, who added he is disappointed the judge awarded anything at all to the trash haulers.
“I’m disappointed that the court determined that there was something about it that merited sending money back to these trash hauler companies,” he said. “These were the losing bidders, by the way, for the trash hauler district contracts.”
Since the haulers bid on the contracts, they obviously knew the trash districts were coming, Earls noted. However, the state law required two years’ notice to the affected companies so that they could have a firm target date to sell off their equipment, lay off employees and wind down their business, Dueker said.
By appealing, the county runs the risk that the trash haulers could win even more in damages.
The interest on the $5.9 million judgment will accrue daily at a 9-percent annual interest rate, Dueker noted. At each stage of the legal case, the trash haulers have tried to settle with the county, but county officials have refused to consider those offers, she added.
Because the Supreme Court already ruled in the trash haulers’ favor on the merits of the case, the county’s fault in the case is final and the only aspect of the case left up to question is the final amount of the damages the county will pay to the haulers, noted Dueker, disputing Earls’ contention that the case is still open.
“We think we have a good case for just overturning the whole judgment, and certainly we’ll pursue that as far as we can go,” Earls said. “Even if we do end up paying the entire judgment, the residents of unincorporated St. Louis County have still saved money.”
Those residents have saved $40 million on trash charges since the county implemented its trash districts and took bids for the service, Earls said. He said these county residents now pay fees of $12 a month, including recycling, compared to Waste Management’s monthly fees, which were running its customers up to $24 a month.
That means those residents in trash districts are getting better service for a lower price, plus recycling, Earls said.
But those lower rates in unincorporated districts are subsidized by other county taxpayers, who also pay for trash service through their municipalities, Dueker said.
After hearing their case again, Wallace decided the county owed $4.94 million to Waste Management, $384,486 to Meridian and $593,489 to American Eagle.
The county never presented any witnesses in its defense in the case and admits that it did not provide the required notification — two years’ notice by certified mail.
County Counselor Patricia Redington argued in court that the state law did not apply to the county because it is a charter county.
The county had every chance to avoid the lawsuit, Dueker said. She said it was an early indication of the problems County Executive Charlie Dooley’s administration is facing now, and noted that the judgment was handed down the night after members of the County Council rejected Bob Baer, one of Dooley’s nominees to the Board of Police Commissioners, due to concerns over Baer’s connections to longtime Dooley campaign treasurer John Temporiti, who was involved in the initial idea to create trash districts.
“Before we filed suit, I sat there with Garry Earls and Pat Redington and said, ‘I’m going to sue you, don’t do this. Just give the notice,'” she said. “And they wouldn’t do it. It’s pretty rare that I see a legal case that is this one-sided, and they just keep stalling and stalling.”
The haulers’ original claim for damages was closer to $23 million, so the new judgment does not cover what companies say they lost due to the creation of the trash districts.
That means the judgment was both good and bad news for the trash haulers, said American Eagle co-owner Bryan Barcom, who initially claimed losses of $5.2 million in the suit.
“I don’t want to sound like an excitement killer about getting awarded $593,000, because that’s a lot of money,” he said. “Don’t misconceive that. However, no one looks at the fact that we lost $2.5 million a year for the last five years, and we are unable to grow our business in unincorporated St. Louis County.”
Like many south county residents, Barcom believes the issue of trash districts should have been decided by voters.
County officials and their advisers, however, said a referendum would cost too much, he noted.
“Would it have cost $5.9 million to put it on the ballot?” Barcom said. “I don’t think it would’ve.”