Garbage curveball

Budget and Legislative Analyst complicates Recology's effort to expand its waste disposal monopoly in San Francisco


A newly released report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst has thrown a curve ball at the Department of the Environment's proposal to transport the city's garbage by truck and rail to Yuba County for disposal in Recology's Ostrom Road landfill.

Recology's proposal would kick in when the city's disposal contract with Waste Management's Altamont landfill reaches its 15 million ton limit, which is anticipated to occur in 2015, or beyond (see "A tale of two landfills," 06/15/10). But as that much-anticipated proposal finally comes to a Board of Supervisors committee on Feb. 9, the debate has suddenly been significantly broadened.

The Budget and Legislative Analyst's report recommends replacing existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that requires competitive bidding on all aspects of the city's waste collection, transportation, and disposal system. It also recommends that the Board of Supervisors require that refuse collection rates for both residential and commercial services be subject to board approval, and that competitive bidding could result in reduced refuse collection rates in San Francisco.

The annual cost to ratepayers of the city's entire refuse system is $206 million, but only the landfill disposal contract, worth $11.2 million a year, gets put out to competitive bid, the BLA observes.

Debra Newman, an analyst with he BLA, told the Guardian that she has been asked why she brought up all these issues in advance of the Board's Feb. 9 Budget and Finance committee hearing to discuss the Department of Environment's recommendation that Recology be awarded the disposal contract. The company already has a monopoly over collection and transportation of waste in San Francisco thanks to an 79-year-old voter-approved agreement.

"Our position is that this is the only opportunity to address these issues with the board because of the way the city's 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance reads," Newman said. "This is the only vehicle we would have because nothing else is going to come to them. The residential rates don't come to them, the commercial rates don't even come to the Rate Board. This is our chance to discuss the whole kit and caboodle of waste collection, transportation, and disposal."

The BLA's Feb. 4 report notes that "Unlike water rates charged by the SF Public Utilities Commission, neither residential or collection rates are currently subject to Board approval, under the city's 1932 refuse ordinance."

Residential rates are approved by the director of Public Works, unless such rates are appealed, in which case they are subject to the approval of the city's Rate Board, which consists of the city administrator, the controller and the SF Public Utilities Commission director. Recology sets the commercial rates, which are not subject to city approval.

Voters previously rejected two attempts to allow for competitive bidding for refuse collection and transportation (Prop. Z in 1993 and Prop. K in 1994). And the BLA observes that if the Board doesn't go to the ballot box, it could ask DoE to analyze costs and benefits of using Recology to collect refuse, and using a separate firm to provide transportation, if that firm can avoid transporting refuse through San Francisco's streets.

Under the never-ending waste ordinance that the city approved during the Great Depression, 97 permits exist to collect refuse within the city, and only authorized refuse collectors that have these permits may transport refuse "through the streets of the City and County of San Francisco." Due to a number of corporate acquisitions, Recology now owns all 97 permits and so has a monopoly over refuse collected in and transported through the streets of San Francisco.

But the BLA report was unable to identify any portion of the city's 1932 refuse ordinance that governs the transport of refuse that does not occur through the city's streets.