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Lexington County Council in “Catch 22” after having to renew garbage contracts

Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – Several weeks ago, Lexington County announced that there would be some additional changes in the fees for curbside and “backdoor” garbage collection in various areas across the county. They had already released some figures on other areas earlier in the year. In many cases, fees were going to go up by at least a small amount for contractors to come by your house and empty your garbage bin sitting curbside. If the hauler had to run into the yard and roll it out to the street themselves, it would cost you even more as it always has.

These changes were necessary because the longstanding garbage contracts had come to the end of their term and all the contracts had to be re-bid. Lexington County contracts out garbage pickup and makes NO money at all in the process. Lexington County used their established procurement process to request bids from virtually everyone in the garbage game; the problem was, just a few were really interested or set up to do business here. Like other governments across the Midlands, Lexington County found out during this process that fewer companies were interested in hauling our garbage than in years past. One contractor, Advanced Disposal, was rethinking the way they did business altogether and were changing to commercial service only. This meant they were not interested in servicing homes as they had in the past.

Almost immediately after people began hearing their bills would be going up, county councilmembers began getting phone calls and e-mails from the voters regarding the increase. One woman said she wondered if the council had done its “due diligence” during the bidding process while others accused local governments of running Advanced Disposal off. This was a company that citizens had complained about almost constantly last year. Many of the areas formerly serviced by Advanced Disposal would now be handled by Waste Industries, a huge national business, and another company called Capital Waste Services.

The zones most complained about were the areas that were seeing the largest increases naturally. District 6 was probably the worst. It is an area broken into two parts. One is called the urban service area, and one called the rural service area. Residents who chose to have their garbage collected at their homes there might pay anywhere from around $11 to $20 more per month depending on whether they rolled the cart out to the curb or had the folks from the truck come and get it at their back door. In the urban parts of that zone, you will get once a week garbage and yard debris pickup with a limited recycling schedule. In the rural areas of that zone, there would be no recycling or yard debris pickup at all, just garbage. Most of the increases will be in effect after the first of the year. So why some wondered, were the rates going up so much?

Several factors play a part in the cost of garbage collection in Lexington County and basically everywhere. Some things we can do nothing about. These are the just the cost of doing business like new compactor trucks costing about $250,000 each. There’s also the cost of labor, insurance. The cost of getting rid of the household trash, an expense referred to as a tipping fee in the trash industry, is covered by Lexington County. This is not a cost that’s added into the expense of the contractor’s bids. Remember too that every company that carries trash can’t just have one or two trucks in their inventory. There must always be backups for trucks broken down or that need maintenance. After all, you can’t just run down to the airport and rent a trash truck from Hertz when you need one! Labor has also increased. A trash truck needs a driver with a commercial driver’s license or CDL. As the economy has strengthened, these drivers are harder to come by because all who want to work already are. A good CDL driver can make more than $50,000 per year easy. Likewise, a good employee that can pass a drug test is also more expensive and harder to come by. You also need to remember that for every employee, there must be someone else for the days an employee is sick, on vacation, or leaves for a better job offer. Then there are benefits like health insurance, worker’s comp, uniforms, it’s enough to make you dizzy. These and other factors make hauling off your trash more expensive than it was the last time the contracts bid. There’s nothing our county can do about that, it’s just business.

Of course, there’s less competition too. Advanced Disposal was changing and a few of the other old players were also no longer in the game, meaning the competition was less. Think about this for a minute. If you could get “filthy” rich off garbage collection, there’d be more people getting into it wouldn’t there? This is a tough business and the weak players have closed up over the years or moved to an easier market. Less competition means less competitive rates.

The thing that we could do something about is prevented by the independent streak in most of us. That’s what’s known as mandatory curbside service. Time and again, the residents of Lexington County have shown no taste for this service. Mandatory means that everyone would have to have their garbage picked up and everyone would have to pay. No, we did not say, nor have we EVER SAID, that our county council was considering mandatory pickup because they aren’t talking about that at all right now. However, this would bring down the cost of garbage service. Some folks like the option of taking their own garbage off if they want, and that doesn’t look to change anytime soon. The county has 11 convenience stations where you can haul your trash for free and lots of folks don’t seem to mind that chore. After all, that’s what teenagers are for, isn’t it?

So why would mandatory pickup save money; that’s easy. Trucks that stop at every house on a street are more profitable than trucks that collect just a few homes on the same street. For every house passed with no pickup, that’s fuel burned and employees time just riding along enjoying the flies…I mean wind blowing through their hair. This little ride generates NO income, but the expenses don’t stop. Even if a company collects the trash in your entire neighborhood but then must drive ten-miles before getting another cart in the next neighborhood, the ten-miles worth of riding expenses are not offset by paying customers. Basically, a waste hauler makes their money picking up trash. The less they pick up, the less money they bring in to offset expenses and make a profit. Just like an empty tractor trailer truck makes no money, neither does an empty trash truck.

The more rural the area, the tougher it is for a waste hauler to make money. Take as an instance, an older widow in Pelion or what’s considered rural District 6. She lives down a long dirt road and is the only one there who has her garbage picked up. Everyone else in the neighborhood takes theirs away to the convenience stations. The cost of having that trash truck run out to Pelion and down that road to get just her can is certainly cost prohibitive. Yes, they’ll go down other roads for sure along the way, but there are just not that many stops in that area. The waste hauler is losing big on that one for sure! The truth is, in some areas, we are lucky to get a company to perform curbside pickup at all. In areas like Sandy Run, Pelion, and Fairview, the household per acre ratio is so small that it’s almost certainly a loser for a business and remember, these are businesses! They are in it for the profit and if they aren’t making a profit, they will not be in business long.

So how did county council get in the “Catch 22,” between a rock and a hard place, and every other cliché you can dream up, it’s pure economics friend. Businesses have to make money or they cease to do business. Your county council representative couldn’t do anything but accept the lowest bid from the company that would do the best job. If you think you want to see lower rates, try pushing for mandatory curbside pickup. Just please, let us get away from you before you do so we won't get hit by any stray rounds!

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Call Paul Kirby

(803) 587-3144