Trash confusion

A few weeks ago the Chico City Council voted to get out of the trash regulation business, sort of. What the conservative majority really wants is not to be held accountable for approving rate hikes for the two companies—Norcal and Waste Management—that currently have operating permits in the city. Led by Councilmember Rick Keene, the council voted 4-3 to allow other companies to move in and compete for business, the idea being that a competitive market will control rates. Problem is, a trash business is not like a comic book store or a dress shop. Cities and counties are under state mandate to meet certain requirements to keep our state’s fast-filling dumps from topping out. Therefore local governments have no choice but to get real cozy with how the trash haulers run their operations.

This week Councilmember Coleen Jarvis suggested raising the rates the companies are allowed to charge to pick up yard waste until a council subcommittee on deregulation can figure out what it wants to do. In June, a five-year contract with Waste Management expired, and it is now operating the much-needed program at a loss. That contract had its own shaky beginning. The council at the time, looking for ways to meet the state requirement to reduce by 50 percent the amount of waste going into the local landfill, called for mandatory green-waste collection. That meant North Valley Disposal, which later became Waste Management, had a captive number of customers, something like 9,600. But a cry arose from some who saw the mandatory pickup for all property owners as something akin to the Brits taxing tea shipped to the colonies 250 years ago. So the city restructured its contract with North Valley and made the program voluntary. In doing so, the city guaranteed the company would make $18,600 per month with yard pickup fees—anything less and the city would make up the difference.

By the time the contract finally expired in June, the city was paying Waste Management $3,000 per month to make up for the 4,000 customers who had dropped the service over the years. So Waste Management operates the program at a loss now. General Manager Bill Mannel said that, though the council voted to stop regulating its rates, the company still couldn’t raise them without city approval because the council has done nothing to officially change the city-company relationship. Keene voted against Jarvis’ proposed temporary two-month hike because he said didn’t have enough information available to make such a decision. Mannel wondered how the city could “force us to operate at a loss?” Keene and Councilmember Larry Wahl are on a subcommittee whose charge is to figure out how the city can extract itself from deregulation by heavily regulating the conditions placed on new operator permits. Mayor Dan Herbert dropped out of the subcommittee, Keene said, because he just wasn’t interested in it. When Councilmember Maureen Kirk suggested a temporary increase would be appropriate until Keene and Wahl “got their act together,” Keene let Kirk know such language hurt his feelings.

Keene conveniently missed much of the testimony in the very controversial matter earlier in the council meeting—the vote on the future of the Esplanade House. Keene was in Sacramento explained Mayor Herbert, taking depositions in connection to his law practice. When he finally arrived two hours into the meeting, I knew he would say he’d missed too much testimony to vote. And that’s what happened. By not voting on the matter, Keene avoided offending regular campaign contributor and Esplanade House promoter Greg Webb. Plus he can say he didn’t vote against the neighbors’ wishes and didn’t vote against the Esplanade House. What a politician. And get this, County Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi‘s redistricting plan creates a little island in south Chico that allows Keene’s residence to stay in Supervisor Jane Dolan's district so he can run against her after her district has been emptied of a lot of her current supporters. Hardball politics.