My first job in local government was as a recycling manager for Alexandria Virginia so I’ve been talking trash for years. Trash also happens to be an issue that keeps coming up in Kent — so I thought I’d try to stir things up a bit and see if I could get some trash talk from you as well.
The issue is the trash collection “free for all” that we have here in Kent. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived or worked where it was every house for themselves when it came to trash collection. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of private sector competition but that’s not what I see happening here — it looks more like private sector chaos. I’m sure I’m probably stepping on someone’s toes here but considering our very high rate of rentals, with move in’s and move out’s happening all the time, with trash sitting out every day of the week waiting for collection, doesn’t it make sense to raise the standard a little and bring some semblance of order to trash collection in Kent?
I’ve run trash collection operations with 15 fully automated and 7 semi-automated rear packer routes and we constantly benchmarked our costs of service against the private sector. We always won. We didn’t have to make a profit so we were tough to beat in price and service. Trash is a commodity business so the margins are low which means the private companies make their money by rolling as fast as they can to generate large volumes — and service, while important, is secondary to speed and number of accounts.
This is compounded by the fact that trash haulers in cities like ours have customers spread all over and trust me, every minute spent traveling from one account to the next is non-productive, non-value added, dead revenue time. We did everything we could to cut out that dead time and I’m sure the private haulers do the same. So what we get is higher prices due to the inefficient collection and trucks racing all over town, carrying heavy loads over our streets — not just once but up to 5 days a week, increasing traffic, and with all due respect to the good haulers out there, lower levels of service because they’ve go to hump as much trash as they can to stay in business and customer service just slows them down.
Not only we were cheaper in cities where we ran the trash collection, we were always ranked as the best service in the city. I’d like to think that’s because we worked really hard to satisfy our customers but it’s actually more than that. It’s a service that is a very tangible part of our lives. Hopefully most of us won’t have to use police or fire services, but like clockwork, our trash service came by every week and provided a service right at their front door. As a result people can see a direct benefit for their tax dollars. For most of us the police and fire are like insurance — we need to pay to have them ready for us in case we need them but many of us will never need them directly so we don’t get that tangible sense of getting something in return for your taxes. It’s human nature to want to see some service for your tax dollars and by setting up the private free for all we have here I think we’ve lost a chance to make an important weekly connection with our residents and their city government.
Before I go any further, let me say that I’m not advocating city run collections right now. That’s a big jump from where we are today and as much as I’d like to do it, we’re not in a financial position to make that move. However, there are steps in between that I think would give us a chance to do better than the way we do it now. We need to look at bidding the service in franchise districts. We could divide the city up into a quadrants and bid each separately so that we could keep multiple haulers in business but we would designate collection days in each quadrant so that we limited trash sitting out on the curbs to one day a week on any given street.
This would help us keep the renters from leaving huge piles for weeks on end and it would give our code enforcement staff the ability to know when trash should be out and more important when it shouldn’t which would allow them to issue more citations to get people to clean up our streets. By giving the private hauler all the houses in a quadrant I honestly believe that prices will be more competitive because we’re cutting out the haulers dead revenue travel time and giving them the kind of customer density they need to make their money.
I’ve rambled a bit but it seems like the benefits are fairly obvious — am I missing something?
Let me know. Thanks.