On Trash and Treasure

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You might call them the humble face of our city, the men who collect our trash each week. Likely they’re the city employees you see most regularly, more so than the police and firefighters who protect us in times of need, or the city councilmembers who represent our interests.

 

Maybe that’s why many residents are upset at the idea of outsourcing the city’s trash collection.

 

Dan Boyd was expecting about 35 people at his Newport Heights home Wednesday evening to discuss the issue. Nearly 60 showed up.

 

Also there to respond to questions were City Councilman Tony Petros, City Manager Dave Kiff, and General Services Director Mark Harmon.

 

The crowd was emotional, much of it having to do with the longevity of our trash collection service as it is and an appreciation for an inelegant task well done: 16 employees with 125-plus years of combined experience handle approximately 26,500 homes. More than 70 percent of the city’s refuse is recycled, which meets the state mandate. Customer approval is a nifty 92 percent. Cost per home is second lowest in Orange County.

 

(You also should know that the high ideal of public service extends to Councilman Petros, who took time away from a family dinner after his mother-in-law’s memorial service, to stop by Boyd’s home.)

 

Boyd, who works in the political arena as a lobbyist for developer D. R. Horton, said that he “hopes to raise the issue beyond emotion.”

 

“This is the third jewel” in city services, he argues, alongside the police and fire departments. And so he has become a leader in the movement to take a deeper look at the issue.

 

“Ideally, I’d like them to abstain from a decision for one year, to give all of Newport the opportunity to weigh in, though that’s not likely to happen. But we do need more time to fairly evaluate [the options].”

 

Boyd makes a good point. The City has solicited bids from privately owned refuse collection companies. They were to be opened on Thursday, September 5. On Tuesday, September 10,the issue comes before the Council. That’s not nearly enough time to thoroughly wade through several bids and compare them to the employees’ proposal.

 

Should the Council decide to act Tuesday night, it will not have given itself and staff enough time to fully assimilate the data. And because the bids were not posted until three p.m. on the fifth, residents won’t have enough time, thereby cutting short the public discourse so essential to a healthy political climate.

 

Some feel that the Council, despite Petros’s promise that the data will be “fairly and objectively considered,” made up its mind early on. A couple of people claim that Councilman Keith Curry recently said, “It’s a done deal.”

 

Curry denies this, and said in an email, “I met with our employee representative and his union representatives yesterday [Wednesday] to hear their position and to share my thoughts. I was asked to speculate about how this issue would resolve itself since I had seen the final consultant report and my council colleagues had not. I offered my opinion that the data in the report would prove compelling; however, that was my speculation not based on any discussion with any councilmember other than Mike Henn. I did not use the term `done deal.’”

 

Fair enough, but it’s at this very point that the Council would do well to foster good will with the community by stepping back from a quick decision.

 

Petros also mentioned the council’s fiduciary responsibility to the residents. Outsourcing is all about saving money, of course, particularly future pension and benefits costs, but I’d suggest that the council’s fiscal responsibility extends beyond this particular bottom line.

 

By outsourcing, the Council pushes the responsibility for a living wage and decent benefits for its trash collectors to the private sector. (How ironic that a Council that spent $135 million on a new civic center is now squeezing nickels over trash collection.)

 

People have always been the true capital of our country. The City’s trash collectors and the intrinsic value they bring to its residents ought to be given priority.

 

They have submitted a three-tiered proposal: Leave refuse collection as is, hybrid semi-automation, or full automation that would permit them to keep their jobs and further lower the cost per home.

 

The Council ought to give them the inside track.

 

 

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