‘Residents deserve to know why they are going to be paying more’: Cities debate landfill operation

File photo of heavy equipment at the Washington County Landfill, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In a twist on the David versus Goliath showdown, but in this case regarding who would handle solid waste management for Washington County, Goliath won – at least according to a self-proclaimed David.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the 20-member board for the Washington County Special Service District #1, Washington County Solid Waste – the plurality of which represent the city of St. George – voted to renew three contracts with Phoenix-based Republic Services to handle trash pickup, recycling and landfill management for the coming decade.

The three separate contracts, now set to be rolled up into two contracts, are scheduled to expire on Jan. 31, 2021.

Although the chairman of the board and Ivins City Council Member Cheyne McDonald attempted to square off with the majority of stakeholders on the board regarding who should control the county’s landfill operations, he failed to convince the board of the “financial logic” to manage the landfill on their own and ultimately ended up voting with the majority.

McDonald told St. George News that his logic made sense from the standpoint of both a business owner and a resident.

“As a business owner, if there are savings, we needed to pursue that. The resident side of me says by staying with Republic Services we will see an increase in our bill by 2.5% every year during the length of the contract, something that could have been avoided,” McDonald said. “Ultimately by operating the landfill ourselves, we would have experienced substantial savings.”

Because of upfront costs to hire and train employees, purchase equipment and other possible unforeseen expenses, McDonald estimated a first-year savings of $640,000, which would increase year after year.

“If the fees were kept at $27 per ton compared to Republic’s increases, it would have saved the district $15 million over nine years,” he said, “even after factoring in $7.6 million in expenditures needed to replace Republic Services’ equipment.”

File photo. St. George News

Ultimately the council rejected McDonald’s assumptions on the savings. It did turn out to be a David versus Goliath battle, he added, which he lost.

On the plus side, in the upcoming contract, the district has more “outs” than in the current contract, which McDonald said is a good thing.

There are also other considerations, he said, which may still invalidate the board’s vote to renew the contracts.

Prior to finalization, each city council represented in the district must sign off on the terms, and McDonald encouraged public input during upcoming city council meetings.

“Although I am not happy with the vote, it is our best option,” he said. “It really is our only option, and overall it is a fair option … but a public groundswell could force the issue. I was hoping to save our residents more money in the long run – not just during the next 10 years, but for the next 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and more.”

Locally, Republic Services provides management of the landfill, recycling sites, household electronics and household hazardous waste collection programs, composting program, paint exchange and a tire recycling program.

Washington County Solid Waste has been a district since 1978.

Its 20-member board, representing 15 municipalities including the county, was formed to oversee the residential waste collection contract and landfill operations.

According to SaveOnEnergy, the average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash every day. It may not seem all that astonishing on the surface, but with 323.7 million people living in the United States that is roughly 728,000 tons of daily garbage – enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks.

With the debate swirling locally on who would operate the landfill, Neil Schwendiman, Washington County Solid Waste District manager, found himself offering information to the district’s board that fell on deaf ears.

Schwendiman was the one who originally threw down the savings estimate of nearly $16 million over 10 years if the district took over management of the landfill.

Even though it is considered one of the oldest forms of waste treatment, it is not to be confused with a dump. Before modern landfills, like the one in Washington County, people would typically burn their trash or take it to an unregulated dumpsite. With a growing population and consumerism, most municipalities have standardized the method of collection and storage of waste. | Photo courtesy Washington County Solid Waste Facebook, St. George News

In 2018, Schwendiman took a proactive stance after realizing the contract with Republic Services was going to expire, and he commissioned a feasibility study for the district to operate the landfill.

The study, conducted by Zion Public Finance Group, analyzed data at Salt Lake County, Trans-Jordan and Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District landfills.

The study also considered the Washington County Solid Waste District’s financial statements and budgets, as well as the initial and ongoing costs to operate the landfill.

“Based on the feasibility study, I told the board this is something we should seriously look at based on the savings involved,” Schwendiman said. “I am not sure why some on the board believe that private enterprise can always do it better and cheaper than government entities. This is not always the case.”

When asked if Republic does a good job, Schwendiman said, “Yes they do,” but added that other factors come into play regarding dealing with Republic.

“Do I have some headaches managing that contract? Yes, I do. I am only one guy trying to push a large corporation in the direction that benefits our landfill and our residents.”

McDonald said if considered in poker terms, the new contract with Republic Services should be a tell of the hand they were holding.

During the past decade, he said, Republic Services has never passed up an increase.

“Never once, and they never will because they always want an increase,” he said. “Under the new contract, recycling will go up, trash pickup will go up and landfill charges will go up every year.”

While St. George Mayor Jon Pike agrees there is an inflation coefficient, he said it’s not the only factor in the board’s decision.

“We’ve really tried to have an apple-to-apple comparison, and we’ve hadn’t had that yet,” Pike said prior to Monday’s vote.

“While it sounds great and is a great deal of money … you have to factor in a pretty sizable amount to buy or lease major earth-moving equipment that would cost millions,” Pike added, despite McDonald’s assertion that this cost was figured into Schwendiman’s feasibility study. “Over time the argument is that there are savings, but there are also significant if’s, and’s and but’s. As a group that is what we were uncomfortable with.”

Republic has done a “very good job at a reasonable cost,” Pike said.

“We are seeing very comprehensible rates, if not better than most of the other places in the state,” he said. “There are no guarantees in life … but in this case, without having more certainties, we believe it would be best to proceed with Republic Services. The majority of the board needed to see conclusive numbers for us to feel better.”

Ivins’ Mayor Chris Hart told St. George News he wouldn’t necessarily characterize this fight as a David versus Goliath battle; he said it was more like tilting at windmills.

“I believe most residents don’t pay much attention to discussions like this, but I think they ought to,” Hart said. “They deserve to understand why this amount of money was left on the table, something that is unclear to me. There needs to be some accountability.”

The decision was based on a stacked deck, Hart added.

“Whatever St. George decides, the rest of the county has to live with,” he said. “St. George often whips us around. If there are valid reasons for the decision, great, but I fail to see them from where I sit. County residents deserve to know why they are going to be paying more than they ought too or more than they need too. I don’t think this is right.”

McDonald agrees.

“On the board, each community has one representative, with the exception of St. George that has six representatives, which can manipulate the board in pretty heavy ways,” he said, adding that some members of the St. George City Council that also serve on the board believe private entities can do it better and cheaper, “even though we have evidence to the contrary.”

“I sometimes feel we have to bow down to what the members from St. George want,” he continued. “This is the way the board was set up a kazillion years ago. As it was then, it still favors the largest municipality.”

Landfill operations have become a side note for some representatives on the board, McDonald said.

“It’s a ‘get in, get out and get on with life’ kind of thing,” he said. “I don’t want the impression I am talking negatively about anyone. I respect everyone on the board, but for me, I want to get in, get business done and get out. I don’t want any fluff.”

Instead of having a year-after-year increase in costs, he said the district should evaluate management year after year to the benefit of the customers.

“Instead of passing along an increase in costs to our residents, we could have looked at it and not increased rates by operating the landfill ourselves to the benefit of shareholders,” McDonald said. “In essence, we would have been paying our shareholders back, the citizens of Washington County.”

This, McDonald said, was an opportunity lost for now.

“I came to realize that when people are living paycheck to paycheck, every dollar matters,” he said. “We were staring at an opportunity to save our residents money. I think we should have grabbed a hold of this chance. If things would have gone the way I wanted, there should have been a better option to vote on, but this was the only option left on the table.”

St. George News attempted to find out how the new contracts would impact individual resident bills, but that information was not made available.

McDonald added that for now because of the overwhelming desire on the board to move forward with Republic’s current contract running out and the need to act sooner than later to ensure continuity of service, coupled with no other actionable item before the board, McDonald acquiesced and voted for the new contract.

Repeated attempts to contact Republic Services for comment were never returned.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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