Talking trash: Bloomington residents say their piece

The campaigns for and against organized solid waste disposal continued last week with nearly 100 people lobbying in front of the Bloomington City Council during a June 1 public hearing.

Arguments, questions and accusations came from both directions, and the council was left with a few questions of its own as it prepares for its follow-up meeting June 22, during which time the council may make a decision about the future of the city’s residential solid waste collection.

Council members identified questions the city’s staff will attempt to answer as the council considers whether to proceed with organizing residential collection, which would mean neighborhoods all use the same service provider, or leave it to residents to decide which of seven licensed haulers will stop at their curb.

Although most people expressed an opinion one way or another, a few reserved judgment. Proponents touted their preference for a system that reduces truck traffic, and ostensibly wear-and-tear on city streets. The lower overall average service cost for residents and the environmental benefits of fewer trucks navigating city streets were also cited as desirable by residents favoring the city’s plan.

Opponents argued against a system that would no longer allow them to choose which service provider comes to their curb, leaving them unable to switch providers when they’re dissatisfied with their service. Several opponents questioned the perceived benefits of the plan, if not outright refuting them by pointing to a lack of evidence from the city to statistically validate the goals of organized collection.

Arguments ran the gamut, and at times provided a moment of levity as residents lined up to speak their piece. “I didn’t know that so many people had such an intimate relationship with their garbage man,” resident Nick Marentic said.

Marentic said the proposal, which would result in the average Bloomington residential customer paying $18.49 per month for weekly garbage and bi-weekly recyclable collection, would save him money. And if it cost him a few dollars more per month to reduce the traffic in his neighborhood, that would be OK, he added. He urged the council not to let anti-government rhetoric and freedom-of-choice pleas stop the council from moving forward with the proposal.

The anti-government rhetoric he spoke of was directed at residents who argued that local government need not be involved in a free market industry.

In opposition, many residents suggested the matter should be decided by a referendum rather than the city’s seven elected council members.

Resident Linda Meyer has had the same service provider for nearly five decades, she told the council. Despite that, she likes the flexibility that the open system provides. If she is dissatisfied with a proposed rate increase for her service, she has the ability to consider other options and can express her dissatisfaction by calling her service provider, she explained.

With the proposed organized collection proposal, the city’s licensed haulers would maintain their market share, but would divvy up the city by neighborhood, resulting in the homes on each block using the same hauler, with the haulers deciding how their market shares would be assigned.

The average rate that residents would pay under the proposal, based upon the varied container sizes that would be available from the haulers, would be $18.49 per month, which would include the city providing the billing and administrative costs associated with solid waste services. The rate would not cover the cost of yard waste collection, and haulers would offer organics collection for an additional $2 per month, according to Karl Keel, the city’s public works director.

When asked about yard waste collection – proposed at a cost of $6.63 per month, with service provided from April through November – Keel said that details had yet to be finalized, but he thought that the proposal would stipulate an additional charge for yard waste beyond the cart provided by the haulers.

The prospect of paying an additional fee for yard waste drew objections from several residents. Meyer questioned the wisdom of being charged an additional fee because the leaves from her trees fall at approximately the same time.

Concerns about yard waste costs resonated with Mayor Gene Winstead, who asked for additional information from the city’s staff about how haulers would treat yard waste under an organized system, given the suggested cost is higher than what people have anticipated.

Although opposed to organized collection because of the lack of measurable effects it would have toward the goals it aims to achieve, resident Art Hahn questioned why the city wouldn’t go one step further and open up solid waste disposal to a competitive bid. Pointing out that residents could expect to pay about $4 less per month if the city opted for competitive bids, Hahn argued pursuing that route if council members are concerned about reducing the cost of residential service.

The average rate of $18.49 discussed during the council meeting reflects rates negotiated between city officials and representatives of the haulers. Rate studies of cities using organized collection showed that residents could expect a lower rate when haulers bid against one another. City officials negotiated with the haulers, however, in an attempt to determine a rate that each hauler would accept, thereby allowing the haulers to maintain their market share in the city.

The negotiated rate was shown to be lower than many monthly bills the city received when requesting them from residents as part of the study. Other residents, however, have paid less than $18.49 per month, and the rate for organized collection concerned resident Mary Rubbelke.

Rubbelke said she wasn’t sure if she favored organized collection, but she was certain that under organized collection her monthly bill would be higher than the $14.82 per month she pays now, which is a concern since she is retired and has to watch her spending. Although unwilling to commit to opposing the plan, she too encouraged the council to put the matter to a vote.

Resident Robin Baumann offered alternatives to putting the matter to a vote, after expressing doubt about the proposal as it has been presented. “I don’t think you are giving us honest and complete information about the true cost,” she said. “Any time government gets involved it will cost us more.”

Baumann suggested that residents who opposed truck traffic from multiple haulers could collectively negotiate with their neighbors to achieve the same result. “Doing this will cost the taxpayers nothing,” she said.

And the city could poll residents without turning to an election ballot simply by asking residents to express a preference through a letter included with the next water bill, she noted.

Resident Joan Kampmeyer has been an advocate for improving the city’s recycling and composting efforts. She said that while some residents will argue they have a God-given right to choose their hauler, organized collection will improve the quality of life in Bloomington.

Noting that many cities have an organized collection system for recyclables, she said it is time for Bloomington to become a leader in an environmental effort. On behalf of those advocating for organized collection Kampmeyer noted, “We do not have glossy brochures that advance a corporate agenda.”

Councilmember Jack Baloga was critical of promotional material that has circulated within the city regarding the city’s effort. Calling the solid waste industry highly profitable, Baloga said that representatives of the industry will fight hard for it to remain so, and warned residents that they’ll receive more information in their mail to that effect, with some of the information being incorrect. He asked who residents will trust more when it comes to disseminating information, “the people who have a financial stake in this,” or “the people who are working for you?”

The city’s analysis of residential rates has been criticized for the number of samples that have been studied. When the city requested copies of residential bills, it received approximately 275. Mayor Gene Winstead said that the results the city received weren’t statistically perfect, but they provided information as to what is occurring in the market place. Winstead was confident that the results, which show the citywide average rate to be $26.72, are within a dollar or two either way of the statistical average or mean, he said.

To examine further market data, however, the council directed the city’s staff to obtain rate information from two haulers that have offered to open up their books for the city. Those haulers represent about 7,500 of the city’s approximate 26,000 homes, according to Winstead.

The city voted 5-2 to close its public hearing, but will accept comments submitted to the city through June 19 in preparation for possible action on June 22. Councilmembers Cynthia Bemis Abrams and Dwayne Lowman voted against it, with Lowman questioning if the council should allow additional comments to be heard at its June 22 meeting.

“There’s still time for people to comment,” Winstead noted.

Updates and information about organized collection are available online at bit.ly/2016trash.