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Residents trash city’s talk of privatizing refuse collection

Two of the city's iconic trash scooters perform pick-up duty. The city is considering privatizing refuse collection, which may do away with the scooters. (West Life photo by Sue Botos)

Rocky River

By Sue Botos

If Rocky River city officials had any doubts concerning residents’ feelings about the current trash collection process, those were thrown out during last week’s discussion regarding automated refuse pickup.

Despite a sobering summary of city finances given by Mayor Pam Bobst, and a presentation touting the benefits of refuse management by an outside contractor from Diane Bickett, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, the consensus was vehement, and at times loud, from the hundreds at the public meeting. No matter what it takes, residents want rubbish collection city-run and preferably gathered from backyards by trash scooters.

“We’re thrilled to see this number of individuals here to hear what we have to say about our beloved refuse and recycle department,” Bobst told a packed Memorial Hall, after a shrill whistle from an audience member brought the crowd to order.

“This is not the easiest discussion we’ve ever had, but it is critical at this time,” stated Bobst, adding, “No decisions have been made. Our work is not even near being complete.”

Reviewing her State of the City address, Bobst said that the combination of the city’s financial needs, improved technology and the desire for more efficient recycling led to a discussion of possibly privatizing refuse pickup with Bickett. “It’s not about paying more taxes. We don’t want to increase taxes,” affirmed Bobst. During her presentation, she stated that the cost of a trash scooter is $33,000, and a garbage packer, the large truck that compacts waste, is $250,000.

Bickett echoed Bobst’s point that nothing had been set in stone. “Many numbers are preliminary. Nothing is finalized. We want to present a concept and get feedback,” she told the crowd, which included a number of service workers and their families, who passed out bottled water to those entering the meeting.

“Trash is all we do. We can really dig into the details,” said Bickett, adding that throughout her meetings with Bobst, the mayor was adamant that services to the city not be compromised.

Bickett traced the evolution of refuse management from “town dumps” to automated collection, where a single operator – using a joystick from inside a truck – manipulates an electronic arm to lift and empty trash bins. She also highlighted “single stream” recycling, where items are discarded into one bin, then separated at a recycling center. Currently, Rocky River residents must sort recyclables and take them to the curb. Other trash is collected by scooters that are driven to backyards, where a worker manually empties refuse into the back of the vehicle, then drives it to the packer truck on the street.

Bickett reported that 38 communities in Cuyahoga County use outside trash contractors, while 21 have municipal waste service. She said that only three eastside communities have scooter pickups.

Trash pickup is partially funded by a 1-mill property tax put in place in 1993. Bickett said that in 2011 this fund amounted to $680,101, which did not come close to covering the cost of trash collection, so an additional $900,000 had to be moved from the general fund to cover the difference.

Bickett detailed several options considered by the city, many of which involved a combination of contractor and city personnel. Three bids were received, and Bickett said the city favored the one by Republic Waste. This plan calls for automated pickup of all city waste and recyclables in one day, plus a weekly pickup of yard waste between April and October. City maintenance crews would be responsible for bulky items, leaf collection and operation of the city waste transfer station. Bobst has assured workers they would not lose their jobs.

The biggest point of contention was the automated collection, which would require residents to wheel trash and recycling bins, provided by Republic, to the curb. The crowd began to rumble and boo when Bickett brought up this fact, although she said the contract would save the city $1,508,047 the first year, and nearly $5 million in five years.

Although the crowd clapped after Bickett’s talk, it groaned and booed when Republic’s David Kidder was introduced. Bobst had to ask the audience for order so he could proceed. “Rocky River is not being picked on. This is a nationwide movement,” said Kidder, who tried to assure the crowd that there would be no cost to residents for the service.

Kidder cut his formal presentation short, but fielded questions from the audience along with Bickett and Bobst. A long line of people approached the microphone with concerns ranging from aesthetics, most feeling the trash bins were unsightly, to damage of small cul-de-sacs by the heavy trucks.

“Complain to me,” said Kidder when one resident asked where to go with concerns.

Anthony Rego said trash collection is a service that makes the city attractive. “Anyone you talk to is jealous of Rocky River,” he said.

Former Councilman Vince Hvizda worried that privatization may spread to other sectors, like police and fire. “Privatization is in vogue, but it’s not the only cure,” he said.

Service worker David Reinker summed up the unique bond of residents and service workers, recalling incidents where trash collectors discovered an elderly woman who had fallen in her driveway last winter and had foiled a robbery. “We see more of what goes on than you think. We’re part of your family.” He added, “If a private company can collect from the curb, so can we.”

 

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