Stenger says taxpayers at risk for millions because of Dooley

Court’s decision a ‘win-win’ for county, Dooley tells Call

By Kari Williams

County taxpayers are at risk “for millions of dollars as a result of poor decision-making on the part of the county executive,” according to 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton.

The “poor-decision making” stems from a Missouri Supreme Court ruling last week that upheld a lower court’s ruling awarding damages to three trash haulers who sued the county in 2008 over the establishment of its trash-collection program.

County Executive Charlie Dooley told the Call the most important aspect of the ruling — one he called a “win-win” for the county — is the program will stay in place.

It was not the county’s authority, but rather, the process, challenged by the trash haulers, he said.

“It’s legal. It’s not going away,” Dooley said. “It continues to save $16 million a year …”

The county executive also said trash districts have saved taxpayers a total of $64 million over the last four years.

“That’s a lot of money left in our citizens’ pockets,” Dooley said. “That’s where it needs to be.”

The biggest problem with the county’s reaction to the ruling, according to Stenger, is “there’s been simply no responsibility taken by the county executive.”

“… Had (the county) made a lawful decision to do what should have been done, we wouldn’t be facing essentially the chopping block,” Stenger said.

The logic being used by the county executive’s office is contrary to “everyone’s everyday experience,” according to Stenger.

“The county faces millions of dollars in damages, and I would think that our county government would want a reputation that it complies with the law ..,” Stenger said. “Government should be an example for its taxpayers not the poster child for lawlessness, for breaking the law.”

St. Louis County appealed a Sept. 2 ruling by Circuit Court Judge Barbara Wallace that ordered the county pay a total of $1,159,903.90 to American Eagle Waste, Meridian Waste and Waste Management.

The trash haulers’ suit alleged the county failed to provide the state-required two years’ written notice it was establishing eight trash districts in unincorporated areas.

The Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s calculation of damages and remanded the issue back to the Circuit Court, but affirmed the judgment “in all other respects,” according to the ruling.

In Wallace’s ruling, the damages were as follows: American Eagle Waste was awarded $261,086.65; Meridian received $99,224.20; and Waste Management received $799,593.90.

“The Circuit Court, in its hearing on damages, excluded evidence of haulers’ expenses or net profit, allowing only evidence of their gross revenue for a two-year period starting April 8, 2008,” the ruling stated. “In its final judgment, the Circuit Court awarded haulers 5 percent of their gross revenue for that two-year period.”

Another issue the county has to be concerned about, according to Stenger, is how the ruling will affect the budget.

“There is certainly nothing in the Supreme Court’s opinion that limits the amount the trial court can award,” Stenger said.

Jane Dueker, the plaintiffs’ attorney, did not return telephone calls seeking comment before press time.

Wallace ruled in September 2010 that the county breached an implied contract with the haulers by not providing two years’ written notice. Wallace decided in January 2011 that the plaintiffs were entitled to damages.

“The county’s action resulted in a finite loss to plaintiffs of 40,000 customers for the statutory two-year notice period,” Wallace wrote in a Jan. 25, 2011, opinion. “By enforcing the exclusivity of its trash hauling districts, the county has effectively prevented plaintiffs from even the possibility of regaining those lost customers in that two-year period.”

In their suit, the three companies cited Missouri statute 260.247, which states, “Any city or political subdivision which annexes an area or enters into or expands solid-waste collection services into an area where the collection of solid waste is presently being provided by one or more private entities, for commercial or residential services, shall notify the private entity or entities of its intent to provide solid-waste collection services in the area by certified mail.”

Trash-collection services cannot begin until at least two years after the date of notification, according to the statute.

“The county has not notified by certified mail, either two years in advance or otherwise, those private entities who were collecting waste in the ‘trash-hauling districts’ of its intent to otherwise provide such services,” the haulers’ suit contended.

The haulers claimed they collectively were owed roughly $23 million.

The haulers filed the suit in May 2008. County Circuit Court Judge Steven Goldman dismissed the case the next month, but the plaintiffs appealed the decision, first to the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals and then to the state Supreme Court. Both courts refused to review the ruling. The case returned in July 2008 to the Court of Appeals, which in October 2008 reversed and remanded Goldman’s original decision.

The suit went to U.S. District Court in 2009 with the addition of federal claims by the haulers, and a trial tentatively was set until Judge Charles Shaw sent the case back to the County Circuit court in March 2010.