Leon Worden

Why our city’s trash problem is real

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, February 20, 2002

anta Clarita residents are paying too much for trash service. That much was learned in an examination of court records, contracts and other public documents.
    Key to the puzzle was a 1995 study performed for the city by an outside contractor. The study was used to determine how much you should pay each week for trash pickup.
    The consultants used a formula that took into consideration all of the costs associated with hauling trash— the haulers’ operating costs, the cost of administering the city contracts, the cost of recycling programs, and about a 7-percent profit for the haulers.
    To determine how much the haulers were paying to dump trash at the local landfill, the consultants relied on information provided by the haulers themselves— companies with a vested interest in keeping your trash rates high.
    The consultants plugged a figure of $34.33 into the formula— the estimated amount the haulers were paying to dump a ton of trash— and the formula spit out your new trash rate: $22.13 a month.
    Turns out, the haulers were actually paying more like $25.59 a ton. Replace that one figure in the formula, and you find that your trash rate should be $1.67 less.
    The haulers’ dumping costs haven’t risen in the last seven years. They’ve gone down. Court records show they’re paying about $11 today. Plug in that figure, and the typical household should be paying about $5 less a month for trash service.
    The trash rates were locked in at $22.13 in 1996, and you’ll be paying $22.13 a month until 2006.
    Who profits from the difference between the amount you’re paying, and the lower amount you should be paying? Not the city. The haulers.
    The rate-setting revelations came on the heels of another trash problem detected by two Signal reporters, Eric Thayer and Patti Shea. They learned nearly a year ago that the city fell short of its state recycling mandate.
    Assembly Bill 939, enacted in 1989, set benchmarks requiring cities and counties to divert 25 percent of their trash from landfills by 1995, and 50 percent by 2000. By “divert,” we’re talking about a combination of recycling and cutting the amount of trash that’s generated.
    The city heralded its programs when it reported that it met the 2000 goal three years early. It was difficult for many to believe we were sending half as much trash to landfills, per capita, than we were a decade earlier, but it went unchallenged.
    Come 2000, and things went awry. We missed the mark, and missed it again in 2001.
    What did we hear from City Hall? The same thing we heard about the inflated trash rates. Not grave concern. Not regrets. Not even finger-pointing at the haulers— which would have seemed easy, since it could be argued that the haulers merely slipped through the cracks in the municipal trash contracts.
    It’s human nature, I suppose, to be defensive. How could the city’s trash system be broken? How could the recycling programs be falling short, after doing so much PR about their successes? No, the numbers must be wrong. (They were, but the programs still fell short.) And those trash rates? Forget it. The city paid more than $700,000 to make a lawsuit go away so that nobody would ever question the trash rates.
    It almost worked. As the drama unfolded in The Signal, the City Council ordered an audit of the trash franchises. Will the auditors find wrongdoing? Maybe not. They might find that the haulers simply slipped through all of the loopholes that were open to them. Waste Management and Republic Services are multinational corporations that know how to read a contract.
    They know how to manipulate a contract, too. In 1999 the contracts were changed so the city’s residential trash rates were no longer tied to the haulers’ dumping costs.
    The City Council launched the trash franchise system in 1991 with the best intentions. We used to have a free-market free-for-all where any hauler could serve any home in Santa Clarita. We were a new city and wanted to change things for the better. We complained about trash trucks driving up and down our streets three and four times a week. So the council parceled up the city, giving each hauler a designated area, cutting down on the trash truck traffic. Importantly, a franchise system seemed the only way to regulate the haulers so they’d meet the new recycling mandate.
    A franchise system is still the right thing for Santa Clarita. But systems don’t exist in vacuum. They work to the extent that people make them work.
    The system needs changing. Let’s stop the excuses, the denials, the shots across the bow of the messenger. Let’s track down the best model for a trash franchise system and bring it to Santa Clarita.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.

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