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Some on Council want to privatize solid waste system

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

City Council Member Don Zimmerman wants to talk trash with his dais peers and is actively looking for two others who will support his proposal to privatize the city’s solid waste collection service.

All other Council members at Monday’s Public Utilities Committee meeting curbed their enthusiasm for the idea, save for Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who co-sponsored the briefing and discussion.

Strongly opposed to the idea was Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert, who told the committee he didn’t see a “due cause” for the discussion. He noted that customer service is among the highest in the nation, that the department has strong diversity and that it hires second-chance employees. For these and other reasons, he said, rate comparisons were nonsensical.

“We provide services that other cities don’t provide,” Gedert said. “We take pride in our employees and pay drivers significantly higher than the living wage.”

But Zimmerman insisted on a deeper cost analysis and at least a request for proposals after Gedert noted that the city has never sought bids on solid waste services. While the department director repeatedly told Zimmerman that no service comparison would be entirely “apples to apples,” Zimmerman, a fiscal conservative, demanded one to properly compare the system.

“We’re talking trash collection, not some kind of mystical rocket science. This isn’t super complicated,” Zimmerman said. “Staff obviously doesn’t want to do this.”

Companies, meanwhile, are already lining up to participate in Austin’s waste services should they get the opportunity. Speaking to the committee, Texas Disposal Systems’ Rick Fraumann said he was asked to provide a rate comparison that showed how Austin’s fees stacked up against other cities that offer similar services.

According to Fraumann’s presentation, Austin’s monthly rate is $23.30 for a 64-gallon trash bin and a 96-gallon recycling bin, sitting between El Paso’s $17 and Seattle’s $62.10. It costs customers $41.85 to upgrade to a 96-gallon trash bin, which was higher than most other cities compared.

Fraumann said his company could compete with the services provided by Austin Resource Recovery, and even with pay and benefits. He noted, “We have to be very competitive because we can’t keep contracts if we don’t have good front-line providers.”

Steve Shannon, the municipal marketing manager for Progressive Waste Solutions, told the committee that the city “does a good job of service” but added that there was “only one way to find out about” how Austin Resource Recovery compared in terms of costs.

“There are many solid waste providers that operate in and around Austin,” he said, encouraging Council members to seek stakeholder input. “And there’s plenty of room for many players.”

Both Carol Guthrie and Todd Kiluk of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spoke to the committee in opposition to the concept.

“When you contract out, you lose accountability,” Guthrie said. Kiluk added that privatization would take away the city’s management authority as well as workers’ pride.

The union representatives found a sympathetic ear in Council Member Ann Kitchen, who cautioned that wages are only one piece of the affordability puzzle. If the jobs are privatized, some Austinites will lose their salaries entirely.

“It’s not as simple as comparing the trash rates,” Kitchen said. “I will not vote for this.”

Neither would Council Member Delia Garza, which the committee chair implied when she told Zimmerman that she didn’t “see the point of bringing this back to committee.”

Kitchen did encourage Zimmerman to bring the proposal to the full Council once he’d gotten answers to his questions, adding that she thought it would be a more appropriate venue.

After the meeting, Zimmerman told the Austin Monitor that he was heading upstairs to look for the two more supportive votes needed to put the proposal on a full Council meeting agenda.

Photo by Snatewittru (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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