There’s a lot of trash talking going on at Killeen City Hall.
The testy exchanges between City Council members and with city staff are the result of the council’s recent consensus decision to put the city’s solid waste service out to private bid.
Opponents of the idea were quick to shoot it down, citing loss of control over the process and the potential for lost jobs.
Backers of outsourcing say the city stands to gain by eliminating overhead and turning the process over to an operator with greater economies of scale.
Both sides have merit, but the anti-bid contingent is overlooking an important fact: Putting the trash service out for bid does not obligate the city to follow through with the outsourcing if the bidder can’t offer a better deal.
But two members of the council — Juan Rivera and Debbie Nash-King — voted against the motion to send out a request for proposal to prospective bidders.
Nash-King was especially emotional, suggesting that sending out RFPs would be a “slap in the face” of the city’s solid waste department employees.
While it’s true that about 100 city employees could potentially lose their jobs if a private contractor were to take over the solid waste services, it doesn’t have to be that way.
In its RFP, the city could stipulate that the city employees would be absorbed by the winning bidder, along with the city’s solid waste vehicles and any future maintenance.
The city could further mandate that the successful contractor must offer single-stream, curbside recycling — a much-needed program that has never gotten off the ground in the city.
If a private contractor can provide quality service at competitive rates, offer recycling and take on most or all of the city’s solid waste staff, opponents of outsourcing would have little room to complain.
If a contractor can’t match the city’s solid waste collection rates or provide recycling at a reasonable cost, the city would be under no obligation to outsource.
This isn’t a new concept.
Nearly a year ago, the council reached a consensus on the rough schedule for an outsourcing process and how the council will be informed along the way.
At the time, the council agreed to enter into a contract with SCS Engineers to draft the request for proposals for potential companies to take over solid waste pickup and disposal in the city.
On Feb. 27, the city’s Solid Waste Committee recommended that an $89,000 contract with SCS to produce the requests for proposal be brought before the council for approval. The council subsequently tabled action on the process in March.
Will outsourcing be a good deal? It depends on who you ask.
In 2016, the council heard a presentation from Texas Disposal Systems, in which a representative of the Austin-based company told the council his company could take over the city’s trash collection and do it at a lower rate, as well as offer recycling. The representative also proposed buying the city’s solid waste vehicles and hiring all impacted city employees.
Though some members wanted to proceed, others expressed an interest in exploring ways to make the solid waste department work more effectively before considering outsourcing.
Indeed, the city has taken significant strides to improve the efficiency of its solid waste department in the past year, though the council had already voted to end the city’s voluntary recycling program in August 2016, citing low participation and negative cash flow.
At the council’s request, Killeen City Manager Ron Olson spent about eight months streamlining the city’s residential and commercial trash service, The initiative was designed to put the department on a competitive footing with private enterprise.
Though there is still some work to be done, the department is operating at a highly cost-effective level, especially in the area of residential service.
So, why look into outsourcing?
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Killeen has faced significant budget problems over the past two years, with the prospect of increasing deficits looming in the next decade, unless significant revenue streams are identified.
By outsourcing solid waste, the city could eliminate the cost of vehicles, maintenance, liability insurance and fuel costs. In addition, the city would save on employee wages and benefits — especially soaring health insurance costs.
Yet there are those who fear that without ownership of the service, the city will lose control over much-needed revenue.
In previous years, surplus solid waste revenue was frequently transferred between city departments, as budget contingencies required, going against conventional accounting principles.
The commingling of funds was criticized in an external audit of the city’s finances earlier this year, and Olson subsequently revised the city’s financial policies to address the problem.
But before Olson arrived on the scene in February, then-Interim City Manager Dennis Baldwin got the council to go along with the transfer of $1.67 million from the solid waste fund to the general fund, in part, to prevent a potential downgrade to the city’s bond rating.
Killeen’s solid waste fund is not a piggy bank, and it never should have been used as one.
Indeed, the city’s rate payers have every reason to ask why the surplus funds weren’t used to give them reduced rates or to provide additional services.
Ultimately, the city’s first responsibility is to provide the best service possible at the lowest cost. If outsourcing can accomplish this, it would be a disservice to rate payers not to at least explore that option.
If outsourcing solid waste collection is not the answer, fair enough. But let’s give it serious consideration before tossing the idea in the trash.