Despite residents’ criticism, county officials optimistic trash plan will work

Without competition, Bivins contends corruption will creep into the process


Amidst criticism, catcalls and claims from residents that St. Louis County’s pending trash districts are a form of “communism,” county officials remain optimistic that the new system will work starting in 2008.

During a Sept. 24 public forum at Affton High School, county representatives heard from roughly 60 speakers of more than 500 residents overwhelmingly opposed to the trash-district system being implemented in unincorporated areas.

Starting Jan. 1, all waste haulers in the county will be held to a new minimum standard of service, which includes once-per-week pickup of trash and recyclables as well as twice-per-year pickup of bulk waste.

But what many south county residents have protested for much of 2007 is a provision that would strip them of the right to choose their own waste hauler.

That responsibility would be passed to the County Council, which unanimously approved the trash-district proposal and minimum standards of service last December. As proposed, the council would award bids to one trash hauler for each district.

County officials have speculated that unincorporated areas would be divided into eight to 10 trash districts and that those districts would be implemented through a phased process between Jan. 1, 2008, and Jan 1, 2009.

At the same time, residents in subdivisions in unincorporated areas still will have the opportunity to choose their own hauler.

Based on preliminary recommendations from the county, it would take two-thirds of a subdivision’s trustees to opt out of the trash districts. Subdivisions, however, still would be required to bid for the county’s new minimum standards of service of once-per-week pickup of trash and recyclables and twice-per-year pickup of bulk waste.

“As far as I’m concerned, they (subdivisions) can opt out forever as long as they maintain the minimum level of service,” County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls said.

County Director of Public Works Sheryl Hodges said at last week’s forum that county officials would schedule more hearings in each proposed district to further explain the opt-out provision for subdivisions.

As for unincorporated residents who don’t live in subdivisions, Earls said having the county award bids to one hauler in each trash district likely would be a cheaper alternative to citizens hiring them because haulers will next year be faced with the new minimum standards.

“If we just did (the new standards) and did that alone, the price of the service would go up and, in some cases, I think fairly substantially in our unincorporated county communities,” Earls said. “… What we seem to have heard from the folks in Affton the other night is that they are so committed to their opportunity to choose their own hauler that apparently they’re willing to pay that price premium for that service. It’s our expectation in the county, though, that the typical citizen, the ones that weren’t there, the ones that just want their trash picked up and hauled and they just want their service and they don’t want to pay a lot of attention to this would much prefer to have us compete the job and get them the price.”

Earls estimates the cost of services in trash districts will range from $11 per month to $18 per month.

That monthly rate, he said, is also largely dependent on whether residents in certain districts would like to be offered services like pickup of yard waste, which is outside the county’s minimum requirements. Yard waste, Earls said, would push that monthly rate “closer to $18.”

Earls also estimated that because the county would pay each hauler for trash service and then bill residents for it, the savings to residents would be roughly 20 percent because haulers would not have to issue billing statements.

Still, a vast majority of residents at last week’s forum believe that not being allowed a choice in the trash company that services their homes is wrong and, according to one local state representative, possibly unconstitutional.

Rep. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, is planning to meet this week with legal counsel to discuss options of preventing the trash-district system from moving forward. Lembke has cited Article 1, Section 13 of the Missouri Constitution in his belief that the county’s prevention of residents from entering into contracts is unconstitutional.

Resident Bob Schnitker, among others, said at last week’s forum that they would support an effort to challenge the plan’s constitutionality.

“Whatever happened to the idea of freedom of choice?” Schnitker said. “I oppose being told the person with whom I have to do business, what I have to pay and the services that I do not want or will never use that I have to pay for.”

Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, suggested that the county allow two or three haulers per district instead of one to allow for more freedom of choice.

“Allowing citizens to choose would preserve some element of competition and you would still reduce the number of trucks on residential streets and prevent the potential for favoritism,” Bivins said. “We need to allow citizens to choose to pay for recycling. Provisions should be made to qualify any future trash haulers as well. My own experience as a subdivision trustee shows residents must be given a choice of who they will do business with.

“Conventional wisdom shows that when no competition exists and government mandates who receives the citizens’ business, the citizens will eventually lose by having to pay higher prices. And inevitably, corruption will creep into the process.”

Residents also have opposed the trash districts after a county task force concluded that because there would be only one hauler assigned to each district, smaller haulers could be forced out of business.

American Eagle owner Brian Barcom also recently criticized a proposal that would raise county haulers’ insurance costs from $2 million to $10 million, saying that his company could not afford to bid because of that and other factors.

But Earls said to make the bidding process more fair, county officials are considering cutting that insurance requirement.

“We think that American Eagle can be a very competitive contractor in this process,” Earls said. “They’re certainly big enough. People keep talking about how small they are. But they’ve certainly convinced me that they can be competitive in this. And anybody that delivers service that is so loyally followed, well, certainly that’s somebody that we would like to have involved in this process.”

While the crowd at last week’s forum was overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, some like resident Bob Lindecke are in favor.

“I think this is a good idea,” Lindecke said. “This should have been proposed 20 years ago. We don’t need five different trash companies beating up our streets … If they drive back and forth to find your house, they’re not going to find the street or the address. This is something that I think is really worthwhile and it’s going to make it a lot easier in the future for St. Louis County.

“We talk about freedom of choice. Unfortunately, I can only buy my electricity from Union Electric. I can only buy my natural gas from Laclede Gas. I get my waste carried away by Metropolitan (St. Louis) Sewer District. And I get my water from Missouri-American Water Co. So nobody seems to be too oppressed by getting their electricity or gas or water or waste taken away by just one person.

“However old you are, you’ve lived under that system your entire life. So this freedom of choice is a little bit overblown as an argument.”

But resident Bill Farrow told Hodges that he believes his freedoms are being so compromised with the trash plan that he likened St. Louis County to a “communist country.”

“You’re coming out here and you’re telling us that we’re going to have one trash pickup per week and then if we want anything extra we’re going to pay for it,” Farrow said. “But nobody’s coming out and telling us what we’re going to pay, how much we’re going to pay and what it’s going to cost us. And you know, the thing you people don’t understand is we’re coming up here and telling you we don’t want your plan. We don’t want it implemented. But you people ain’t listening to a thing we have to say …

“You’re running it like a communist country is running their government. And if you don’t know what it means for a communist country, I’ve printed it out for you and I’d like to give it to you …”

“Sir, I understand the communist system,” Hodges replied. “And I take offense to that.”