Mount Laurel switching to private trash collection May 13

Posted: April 18, 2013

If all goes well, May 13 will come and go with Mount Laurel homeowners taking little notice of that humblest of household chores: taking out the trash.

Garbage trucks will rumble through neighborhoods. Their brakes will squeal, crushers will whine, and barrels that were heavy at dawn will be empty by noon.

What will be different will be the cost.

Starting that day and continuing for at least three years, trash collection throughout the town will be handled not by township employees, but by a private company.

And instead of costing $7 per household per month, privatized hauling will cost the township $4.20, according to Township Manager Maureen Mitchell. It will increase only 11 cents a year for the next two years.

"We'll save $1.1 million over three years," she said.

Condominium dwellers will notice a change, however. Pickup for them will be twice monthly rather than weekly. Commercial properties contract for their own hauling.

William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said there was anecdotal evidence that municipalities are turning increasingly to privatized trash hauling to save on costs, but that the league has not collected data on the trend.

Among area townships that have recently privatized trash hauling is Medford. Township Manager Chris Schultz said he expected to save $1.5 million over five years.

"We were paying $8.50 per property" using municipal employees, Schultz said. By turning to a private hauler, he said, the cost dropped to $4.90.

Though substantial, such savings come with a price. Like Medford, Mount Laurel is laying off three public works sanitation employees as Republic Services L.L.C., based in the town, takes over.

Mount Laurel public works employees are paid on average more than $65,000 a year in salary, health benefits, and pension contributions, and private haulers compensate their employees much less, Mitchell said.

Although sorry to see the workers go, Mitchell said, the departures would "not have a serious impact" on township services. Trash privatization should free up other public works employees to perform such tasks as grass cutting, brush removal, and improving sight lines on roads and at intersections.

The township made no concessions to unions to privatize trash collection, according to Mitchell, "because it's management's prerogative to select how we deliver services."

Dressel, of the municipalities league, said layoffs "are sometimes inevitable" and "there can be a downside."

"Dealing with a private company, you don't have the same control you would have with municipal employees. With a contractor, if Mrs. Jones calls to say she doesn't like the truck coming down the street at 4 a.m., there's not much [the town] can do about it."

But Schultz said that once the contractor's crews had learned the quirks of Medford's rural routes - some cul-de-sacs cannot accommodate full-size trucks, for example - complaints dropped. Among the advantages of privatization, he said, is that the township no longer needs to maintain a fleet of trash trucks, which he described as costly and labor-intensive. "We need to be as versatile as possible," Schultz said, because Medford is seeking to emerge from the deep indebtedness it incurred in the previous decade.

Its number of public works employees is now 13, according to Schultz, down from a high in 2003 of 38.

Leaf collection and snow removal are also candidates for outsourcing, possibly by using a mix of municipal and contract employees to create "an efficient, mobile working group" at times of peak need.

Mitchell said she was open to privatizing any municipal service that can be delivered economically.

The township's tax base has declined by $65 million since 2008 because so many property owners have successfully challenged their assessments. Despite a 2013 municipal budget that is $154,000 less than last year's, homeowners will pay an average of $25 more in taxes. "We investigate anything" that saves money, Mitchell said. "Nothing is off the table."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841.

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