The cash in trash
Snow from the Sierra Nevada peaks gleams in the distance beyond the McCourtney Road garbage transfer station.
The vista won’t change, but operations at the station could if Nevada County decides to contract out management of the work there to a private manager.
After two consecutive years of revenue decline totaling more than $1.5 million for garbage collection, officials say a change could save the county on operating costs.
But neighbors worry that if a private contractor operates the facility, hours and noise could increase – after reducing such nuisances in recent years. The station’s handful of county employees at the station worry about their jobs if a private firm were hired.
County supervisors voted in February to hire a consultant for $92,000 to collect bids to manage operating the station, which includes handling the fees for garbage drop-off, recycling and general oversight.
County employees perform about 20 percent of the work at the transfer station, essentially serving as middlemen between the green Waste Management collection trucks shuttling garbage into the site and the heavy Recology Inc. semis hauling it out, said Sanitation Director Mark Miller.
“A lot of the comments we’ve received from the public are encouraging us to do this,” Miller said. “Many of them point out that public sector personnel costs are higher than in the private sector.”
The county hasn’t yet determined the potential savings if the work were contracted to a private company, Miller said.
About seven companies, including Waste Management, have expressed interest in taking over operations. None have submitted proposals, which are due in April, Miller said.
Transfer station employees see the potential change as a mixed bag, said Operations Manager Bob Elder.
“Sure, they’re worried,” Elder said. “But they know it’s not a done deal. It may end up not making sense financially.
“At first glance, though, it seems to make sense to at least look at a change,” Elder added.
“As an employee, I’m a little concerned, but as a business person, I think it’s a good idea to look at how we do business here, because we’ve been doing it the same for a long time.”
With the recession, both commercial and domestic trash collection is down. During the last two years garbage collection fees have dropped from about $5 million to about $3.5 million.
As the construction industry has slowed (see story on Page A1 about the decline in building permits), people aren’t filling Dumpsters with refuse from demolitions and home construction, Miller said.
“All those things that go with a new house, people aren’t buying any more,” Miller said. “All of the packaging from consumer goods doesn’t show up any more, because people aren’t buying a lot of new things. Part of it is a good thing: People are recycling more and maybe getting away from the conspicuous consumption of the past.”
The revenue decline has forced the county to reduce transfer station hours and days of operations. The facility is now closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Although the county could find savings by turning to private managers, neighbors of the transfer station wonder whether it’s a good move for everyone.
Employees at the center have worked with neighbors in recent years to reduce noise and hours for running equipment at the site – forging a good relationship, Elder said.
“What does the county give up?” said Rick Gerdl, who lives nearby. “Those county employees right now are the only link the public has. If you eliminate them and we lose control, whoever comes in there can tell the county they’ll extend the hours, and what is the county going to do about it?”
The county would maintain the right to set policy regarding the transfer station’s operations, Miller said. Extending hours isn’t included in the request for proposals the county is issuing to potential bidders, he added.
The international garbage giant is one of seven companies to express interest in contracting with the county.
Company officials are considering whether to submit a proposal, said District Manager Steve Cameron.
If Waste Management took over the management of the station, it would increase its already large presence in Nevada County. In addition to serving as the solid waste collector for all of the unincorporated areas, Waste Management also contracts with Grass Valley and Nevada City. (Truckee contracts with Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal.)
Waste Management serves nearly 20 million customers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, collecting 66 million tons of solid waste yearly – and earning $1.19 billion in 2009.
The company’s franchise with Nevada County began in 2003 and ends in 2011. It pays the county 5 percent of gross revenue collected in the unincorporated areas, which totaled about $330,000 in fiscal year 2008-09, said county Chief Financial Officer Joe Christoffel.
Waste Management’s contract with Grass Valley was signed in 2005 and ends in 2014. It requires the company to pay the city 2 percent of gross revenue quarterly, or about $53,000 last fiscal year, said City Administrator Dan Holler.
Nevada City’s contract was signed in 1995, ends in 2015, and requires the company to pay 2 percent of its gross revenue, said Finance Director Catrina Andes. Information on the amount of payments to the city were not available Tuesday.
To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4239.
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