Killeen’s city council essentially threw nearly two years of work out with the trash.
That’s the end result of Tuesday’s decision, by a 4-3 consensus vote, to halt the potential outsourcing of the city’s solid waste service.
Whether the council ultimately made the right call is overshadowed by the fact that the decision was unnecessarily rushed.
Moreover, the process appeared to be biased by city staffers who never were on board with the concept of handing over city services to an outside provider. Several council members complained about the request for proposals sent to potential bidders. One said it was “designed to fail,” in order to keep the service in-house.
Some of those obstacles included a short amortization schedule on purchases of equipment and vehicles, as well as an obligation to hire and retain former city workers for at least five years.
Notably, council members on the short end of the 4-3 vote expressed frustration that the initiative was killed in workshop session, without even a formal vote by the council.
No doubt, this was an important decision and council members should have had more time to study the data and consider the consequences of a final vote.
There are legitimate financial concerns on both sides of the outsourcing issue — and council members should have had time to digest the numbers, rather than base a decision on a flurry of numbers tossed out by city staff the previous week.
On some levels, outsourcing makes the most sense — especially since it would free the city from paying salaries, benefits and insurance for more than 80 employees, not to mention the cost of maintaining, replacing, insuring and fueling a fleet of solid waste vehicles.
In addition, as proposed, the winning bidder would still be required to the pay the city a 9 percent franchise fee, plus a portion of proceeds from the sale of recyclables, if recycling were part of the contract, not to mention. The winning bidder would also be paying the city for its solid waste vehicles, estimated last year at $17 million in value.
On the other side of the issue, by outsourcing the service, the city would be losing income from an internal revenue-generating enterprise that helps to fund city operations across several areas of the budget.
Some have called the solid waste enterprise fund the city’s “cash cow.”
Indeed, when then-interim City Manager Dennis Baldwin urged council members to help shore up the city’s general fund through a $1.67 million funds transfer in December 2016, the money came from the solid waste fund.
That same fund is the source of $800,000 in annual mowing costs — an odd, decade-old arrangement that was questioned in a management audit of the city’s finances completed last summer. The rationale for paying for mowing out of the solid waste fund? Because the city’s operational fund could not afford it.
City Manager Ron Olson last year undertook an eight-month initiative to increase the solid waste department’s efficiency. He subsequently told the council it was unlikely an outside bidder could beat the city’s services on the basis of cost.
As a result, it was no surprise when city staff on April 17 unveiled its analysis of the four outside bidders — showing that only one bidder proposed a rate lower than what the city can offer.
That one company’s proposal was discounted because it had been in operation less than a year.
Still, the staff’s presentation was described by one councilman as “one-sided,” obviously slanted toward keeping solid waste services as they are.
Further, the councilman correctly noted that the public has been shut out during this entire process.
Certainly, a decision so consequential — with major implications regarding rates and services — should have been the subject of at least one public hearing. But by summarily dismissing the whole process in a workshop session, the council removed any potential public involvement.
The outsourcing initiative has been fraught with problems from the start. After knocking the issue around for several months, council members agreed to hire an outside company to write the request for proposals that would be sent to prospective bidders — only to table the issue and turn the job of writing an RFP over to city staff. Staffers subsequently drafted and sent out the RFPs without council input or review, so members didn’t even know exactly what outside companies were bidding on.
It’s apparent that some council members have been dead-set against outsourcing solid waste since discussions on the subject first began almost two years ago — and that’s their right.
But in taking city staff’s numbers at face value and giving a quick thumbs-down to the initiative without affording opportunity for further discussion, study or public input, they have done their fellow council members — and the city’s taxpayers — a disservice.
At the very least, the public should have had a say in the matter.
And to be fair, the final decision shouldn’t have been made until a new council is seated after the May 5 election.
This issue was too important to be placed in the hands of members who are either fighting re-election to their seats or going off the council because of term limits.
Depending on the election’s outcome, council members may want to consider bringing the outsourcing issue back up for consideration — so they can more thoroughly review the competing bids and give the public a chance to weigh in on the subject.
Short of that, the city should commit to producing a proposal to match the rate proposed by the lowest bidder — one that includes citywide curbside recycling. And they should have that proposal ready for council review within 60 days.
The city has invested too much time and effort on the outsourcing initiative to just toss it aside.
Killeen’s residents should demand more from the city.
And they should receive it.