As City Hall roils in a tempestuous budget season, discussions about changing how the city collects garbage for its citizens have been making progress.
Talks are underway that will likely lead to some changes in the city’s longstanding policy of collecting garbage left at the curb for a flat fee.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Sanitation services are part of the city’s operating budget, but they are not funded through the city’s general fund, the largest pot of revenue the city of Memphis has. They are funded with the monthly $25.05 solid waste fee paid by citizens.
An attempt by Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad to drop the rate and save the city an estimated $17 million is the latest attempt by Conrad over several years to move toward what he views as more efficient sanitation services with a wider use of automation and/or private contractors. Also on the table is a shift toward systems used in other U.S. cities defined as “pay as you throw.”
Pay as you throw is the concept that citizens pay a solid waste fee that reflects the amount of waste they put at the curb to be collected. It would be a big adjustment in a place where city workers pick up anything left at the curb for a flat fee and has for a long time.
“I think in any event, we are going to take a real hard look at it. … We think it is more equitable,” Little said. “If I live in a condo and I’m putting out maybe not even a full cart why should I pay the same rate as somebody who’s got a 5,000 square foot house with a quarter acre yard who is putting out 50 bags of leaves? That’s really not fair to me.”
For Conrad, it’s a matter of timing.
“I’m not for pay as you throw as long as we have a lot of inefficiency in the system,” he said. “To me, as long as I can be confident that we have made the system very efficient or much more efficient than it is, I would feel better about going to more of a pay-for-service type model.”
Around a table at City Hall Thursday, June 13, Conrad, Little and Chad Johnson – leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represents sanitation workers – talked about future steps in the next month.
They include a survey to see how many of the 181,000 residential and small businesses getting city sanitation services could have their garbage picked up by private contractors using “one-armed bandits” – the automated trucks that lift garbage containers from the curb and dump them in the truck.
Little said the administration believes that could be 70 percent of the base. Johnson thinks the percentage is much lower. Both agreed on a more detailed look to get at a real number.
“We almost agree on the facts. There’s a little disconnect on how many houses could be done with the automated trucks,” Conrad said later. “There’s simply so many places in town where you’ve got a lot of cars that are parked on the street. You could get there. But it would be a major inconvenience for citizens.”
The adjustment to that as well as pay as you throw includes what Johnson calls “the great intangible.”
“It’s the level of service Memphians have come to expect,” he said.
Conrad and Johnson agree some of the savings, estimated at $6 million a year, would be used to fund a flat annual retirement payment for sanitation workers who have no such retirement, including some in their 70s who are still working. If there aren’t any savings, there is no retirement plan.
“If we can lower the cost basis we certainly want to do that and if we can support a sound retirement package, we’re supportive of that,” Little said. “I’m glad to hear the council is receptive as well.”
The administration is suggesting a move to quarterly solid waste pick up in which citizens would separate out trash like leaves, yard waste, and recyclables and take them to pick-up points.
Little said it couldn’t happen overnight and would require a “whole process” of letting citizens know that more is expected of them than putting garbage at their curb.
“You don’t do that overnight,” he said. “That said, we are probably looking under any scenario maybe around the first of the year. We could perhaps accelerate it but we want to reach out to the citizens, advise them. Make sure they know where the nearby pick up spots are.”
Conrad favors keeping the weekly pick-up option even if citizens pay more for the option.
“Maybe if you want it done weekly, you just pay for it weekly,” he said. “I’d like people to have that convenience, but there’s a price for convenience. I’d rather give people the choice to have it weekly but pay for it if there are ways to have it.”