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Garbage time? St. Paul may trim trash haulers list as talks stall

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A garbage bin in St. Paul.
"It doesn't make sense to have 15 different trucks servicing every neighborhood in St. Paul," said Ellen Biales, a program manager for St. Paul Public Works, which is leading the effort to reorganize trash collection.
Jon Gordon | MPR News file

St. Paul is poised to up the ante in its long-running effort to change the way trash gets collected in the city. A Wednesday afternoon City Council meeting could set changes in motion.

After years of complaints about the city's patchwork of trash haulers bringing the big trucks down alleys sometimes several times a day, city leaders last summer decided to pursue an organized collection strategy similar to Minneapolis and other cities.

But despite months of talks over a prospective plan, haulers and St. Paul remain far apart on what that plan should be. Now the city is taking the first steps that could dispose of more than a dozen haulers that currently pick up trash. 

"We knew that our residents were paying vastly different sums for trash service in St. Paul. So, we were looking for consistent rates, across the board, consistent customer service across the board ... a reduction in illegal dumping, far less truck traffic across the city," said Ellen Biales, a program manager for St. Paul Public Works, which is leading the effort to reorganize trash collection.

"It doesn't make sense to have 15 different trucks servicing every neighborhood in St. Paul," she said.

Last summer the city acted on a state law that allows officials to intervene in St. Paul's free market garbage collection system. That set up months of haggling with existing haulers, trying to get them to organize themselves, rather than a city-run system. The haulers have submitted three different proposals to the city.

But now city officials say they fear a deal can't be done, and they need to take more drastic action.

"We've been negotiating in good faith for seven months," said Anne Hunt, the city's environmental policy director. "We're likely to ask for a fourth proposal, but we want to be on the dual track system, to be able to continue negotiations. But starting this process to put together a framework for a request for proposal that would address the issues that were prioritized by the council.

Those priorities included optional organics collection, improving recycling and offering extra services, like appliance disposal.

But trash haulers aren't so sure about those priorities. One of the conditions for a deal, a so-called "labor peace" agreement, would open the door to unionizing the hauler's workers.

"Employees already have the right to unionize and they don't want to," said Thor Nelson, chief operating officer for Minneapolis-based Aspen Waste Systems, which has thousands of residential and commercial customers in St. Paul and around the Twin Cities. 

"What the city wants us to do is to hand over employee contact information without the employee's consent and to promote unionization in our company and the city hasn't provided a rational reason why this would improve trash collection," he added.

The two sides also differ on matters like pricing and the range of options pickup service would offer, like collecting Christmas trees for no additional charge. City officials say they also differ on whether to run the system on a company-by-company basis or with a single master deal.

In its Wednesday meeting, the council is expected to toughen its stance and vote to set up a committee that could end the haggling. The city could take offers from single providers, possibly cutting out some of the existing companies.

That could end up shutting out small, local haulers, even though support for local firms was one of the city's priorities, said Nelson, with Aspen Waste. Critics also point to the rough start for the city's recycling reboot in January, also involving a single provider.

Hunt, though, said St. Paul needs to kick-start a change to the garbage business if it hopes to get anything done.