Trash haulers in Richfield: The fewer the better?

Debate is beginning in Richfield over a trash-hauling policy that critics say is inefficient, causes extra pollution and damage to roads, and leads to unwarranted physical danger to the public.

The Richfield League of Women Voters is attempting to bring the discussion to the fore, having conducted two meetings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 to introduce members to the issue. It is the beginnings of the LWV’s plan to formulate an official position on the topic, one that could influence the city council in a potential decision that could still be years away.

“We’ve only begun to study it. However, we feel it’s a very interesting topic,” said Maureen Scaglia, a Richfield LWV member who released a report in November outlining the pros and cons of an organized trash hauling service.

Currently, city code says residents must contract with a private trash hauler or “provide an environmentally sound alternative,” explains Scaglia’s report. Five waste haulers, including those picking up recycling, are licensed to operate in Richfield, according to Betsy Osborn, the city health administrator in charge of the licensing process.

Reducing that number could save residents  a substantial sum, said Scaglia, also a member of the Richfield Planning Commission. “No one seems to really talk too much about it, but there is a real cost savings,” she said.

Her report says that according to some estimates, moving to an organized garbage collection system can save people 30-50 percent over the alternative.

According to Scaglia’s report, 65-80 percent of cities in the metro area handle garbage collection with an open system, meaning haulers need only apply for a license for the right to operate in the city, while some cities allow operation without licensure. Under this system, residents arrange their own contracts with the garbage companies.

Other metro cities — 20-35 percent of them, according to the LWV report — bid out the exclusive right to collect waste in the city. But nationally, more cities use an organized system versus an open one, the report says. Also, a small number of cities in the metro area operate their own trash hauling service.

Critics of an open system say the extra trucks it puts on the roads causes inefficiency and extra pollution, damages roads, and is more dangerous to pedestrians. They also criticize a potential lack of transparency regarding where the garbage ends up, according to the LWV report.

Those favoring an open system point to the freedom of choice it gives residents and minimal administrative costs for the city. Plus, they say, it allows small companies to compete with larger firms, according to the report.

One day, 19 trucks

Regarding road impact, the report also notes that one garbage truck has the impact of 1,000 car trips, and mentions that the city of Oakdale found that going from five haulers to one hauler would reduce maintenance costs by 4 percent.

Greg Mangold, a member of the Richfield Community Services Commission, the body  responsible for helping form the waste collection policy, is a chief advocate of a closed system. He said he counted 19 trucks drive by his house on the 6200 block of Washburn Avenue one day in June 2011. “To be fair, that included recycling trucks, solid waste trucks and leaf trucks,” he added.

Mangold has brought the issue to the city council, but it did not advance far, he said. “I think they wanted me just to quiet up,” Mangold said.

He is well aware of the political difficulties the issue brings, and how the move would affect a basic principal that many citizens hold dear.

“The big pushback, of course, is it’s going to take away our choice,” Mangold acknowledged. “And that’s huge.”

Addressing the city’s garbage collection policy is a politically sensitive foray. Garbage companies are typically at the front of resistance to efforts to organize the waste collection system. The LWV report says a member of the Maplewood City Council recently lost reelection after successfully backing a plan to move to organized hauling.

“Companies whose bids were not accepted poured lots of money into his opponent’s campaign,” Scaglia’s report says.

The lobbying that comes with the trash hauling debate is particularly troubling for LWV, according to Scaglia. “We are very concerned about the heavy lobbying to defeat (a candidate) on a single issue,” she said.

“As soon as a hauler gets a sniff that something is happening, they start putting up postcards,” Mangold observed.

He remembers the last time the issue came before the Richfield City Council, in April 2011, when a representative of one small, local trash hauler said “this would take us out of business,” as Mangold recalls.

The topic’s political difficulties may discourage residents from pushing the issue, he suggests. “The thing is, I just think they think that’s the way it is, and there’s no way around it,” he said.

It will be some time before the LWV develops its trash collection stance. “The league never does anything quickly,” Scaglia said. “We go through what we call a consensus process.”

It may be two years before the LWV forms a position and takes it to the city council, but Scaglia said when a stance is taken, it should be one that wields heavy influence. “A lot of our positions over the years eventually find their way into city policy,” she said.

But Scaglia won’t predict an outcome regarding a garbage hauling stance. “All these women are very independent, so I can’t say which way they’ll vote,” she said.

Well before an LWV vote occurs, the group may organize a public forum on the issue for sometime in March 2013. At that gathering, Scaglia expects to see a healthy turnout from garbage collectors.