Judge could issue ruling this summer in lawsuit challenging county’s trash districts

Next hearing slated for June 19

By BURKE WASSON

A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge could decide this summer whether county officials legally established trash districts in unincorporated areas without a vote of the people.

After a case-management conference last week between county attorneys and attorneys representing American Eagle Waste Industries and two unincorporated residents, another conference has been scheduled for June 19.

American Eagle along with south county resident Brett Buchanan and north county resident Greg Porter filed suit last August against St. Louis County alleging trash districts were improperly established because they were not approved by voters in each district. American Eagle is not one of the three haulers awarded bids by the County Council to exclusively serve trash districts.

The plaintiffs contend the County Charter requires voters to approve the establishment of such districts, the first of which was authorized last July followed by seven more on Sept. 29.

The lawsuit cites Section 2.180.24 of the County Charter, which states that the County Council “shall have, by ordinance, the power to … provide for the creation of districts in the unincorporated areas of the county within which may be provided … garbage and refuse collection and disposal, and such kindred facilities as the voters therein by a majority of those voting thereon may approve, the same to be paid for from funds raised by special assessment, general taxation or service charge …”

The lawsuit alleges that the county “has directly violated the command of its own governing charter by imposing upon its citizens in unincorporated areas a mandatory trash-district program and service charge without an authorizing vote by the citizens in each district, as required by the charter.”

But County Counselor Patricia Redington has contended that trash districts were created “under charter authority” outside of Section 2.180.24.

American Eagle and two other district-denied haulers — Meridian Waste Service and Waste Management of Missouri — also are awaiting the circuit court’s reaction to another lawsuit filed against the county.

The Missouri Supreme Court in February denied the county’s request to reconsider an Oct. 21 appellate-court ruling requiring county officials to provide a state-mandated two-year notice to waste haulers before establishing trash districts.

While the case has been sent back to the circuit court to consider the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals’ ruling, no date has been set.

The appellate-court ruling stated that despite county officials’ claims that the County Charter supersedes Missouri Re-vised Statute 260.247 mandating the two-year notice, home rule does not apply in this case.

American Eagle, Meridian and Waste Management originally sued the county in May 2008 for not providing the two-year notice.

Circuit Court Judge Steven H. Goldman last year ruled that the 2007 state law requiring the two-year notice does not apply to St. Louis County. His ruling then was overturned by the appellate court.

County spokesman Mac Scott previously said county officials believe that the state law requiring the two-year notice must be considered and not necessarily followed.

Scott also has questioned the validity of the state law requiring a two-year notice as it was enacted after the County Council voted to establish trash districts. While the County Council voted 7-0 in December 2006 to establish future trash districts, the state law requiring the two-year notice was not enacted until 2007.

Three haulers — Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia — were awarded bids to serve the eight districts with each hauler promised exclusive service in awarded districts.

County Executive Charlie Dooley in October had sought “emergency legislation” to close a loophole in county law that would allow waste haulers to serve any trash district.

After Redington acknowledged in court that trash districts were unenforceable, some haulers who were not awarded contracts informed the County Council that they planned on offering service within the established trash districts.

To combat this possibility, Dooley originally had proposed penalizing unsuccessful bidders servicing established trash districts with a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.

The County Council later voted to reduce that fine to $50 per trip.

Besides fining unauthorized haulers, county officials also have begun fining unincorporated residents $100 for “failure to have in effect an agreement for the collection of waste.”

Some residents have not paid bills to their district-appointed haulers and have had trash service suspended, which results in the county issuing a fine.

Besides putting teeth in the county’s trash-district program to dissuade unauthorized haulers from serving trash districts awarded by the county to contracted haulers, the County Council last year also set some parameters for residents and haulers.

An ordinance allows homeowners to temporarily opt out of trash districts if their home will be vacant for 60 days or more, requires haulers to develop a plan to collect trash “to residences which demonstrate the lack of any member age 13 or older physically able” to place trash at designated pickups, codifies a 10-percent discount to household owners 65 and older and stipulates that haulers must operate a customer-service center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

If residents are not satisfied with their trash service, they are encouraged to call the county at 314-615-HAUL (4285).

A county employee then will verify if the caller’s address is not on a list of households that did not have trash set out on collection day.

At that point, the county will dispatch an employee to see that trash is on the curb and then advise the hauler that they have 24 hours to pick it up.

If not, haulers will be fined $10 per missed pickup.