Is trash fee waste mismanagement?

Posted: March 09, 2010

Is this bang for your buck?

As the city gears up to charge you $300 a year for trash collection, questions linger about whether Philadelphia's trash operation is as efficient as possible.

"I don't want someone to tell me what I'll get for the $300; I want to know what [trash collection] costs," said Maurice Sampson II, who served as recycling coordinator under former Mayor W. Wilson Goode.

Mayor Nutter last week proposed the trash fee and a 2-cent per-ounce soda tax - moves he described as the best way to balance the city budget without service cuts or changes to the major city taxes. Some low-income families could qualify to pay a reduced $200 trash fee under the plan, which Nutter says is still a work in progress.

The trash fee would bring in $107 million annually, covering the cost of the service, officials said. But experts questioned whether the city could be paying less for trash and recycling collection - either through more efficient management in-house, or by privatizing some or all of the system.

"If government is providing this service, it has an obligation to provide it in the most efficient way possible," said Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit conservative policy group.

Gilroy said cities that have privatized trash services saw savings of 20 to 40 percent. He also said a system where the public sector employees bid against private firms to collect trash in different parts of the city - such programs exist in Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix, Ariz. - would provide cost savings.

Linda Morrison, who served as the director of competitive contracting under then-Mayor Ed Rendell, said that competitive bidding would reduce costs.

"Just turning something over to a private company may or may not save you any money, but if you open it up to competition, that almost certainly would save you money," Morrison said.

Mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver yesterday said that the city wasn't in a position to consider privatization - which would require City Council approval - as it is in the midst of contract negotiations with the city's blue-collar workers.

"We're in a budget process, but we're also in union negotiations. And right now, we're not far enough along in our negotiations or far enough along in evaluating our options to make such a request of City Council," Oliver said.

The city unions have long opposed privatization, saying it would kill jobs and not necessarily provide better service.

Sampson, president of Niche Recycling and Waste Reduction Systems, also said the city might be able to get more savings by changing the types of vehicles used or by reducing the number of people on a sanitation crew.

"There's an opportunity for the city to reduce the bill by just getting more efficient in how they collect," Sampson said.

The city's 840 sanitation workers collect trash and recycling using manual trucks operated by a driver and two workers, who toss in trash by hand. That's a more labor-intensive model than automated vehicles that have mechanical arms to pick up trash cans. Those typically require just a driver or a driver and one additional worker.

A city spokeswoman said that automated vehicles wouldn't work in much of the city, due to the narrow streets and limited off-street parking.

Two previous mayors attempted to privatize trash collection. W. Wilson Goode in 1988 took bids from private haulers who claimed they could drastically reduce the cost of service. And in 1992 Rendell considered bids for trash collection in about a third of the city. City Council - who has to approve any contract issued for more than a year - did not sign off on either plan.

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