John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Restraining Order

This week's Maplewood Review has an interesting story, and unlike most of my recent blog entries, it's not related to organized collection.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Public Opinion 1996

As mentioned previously, I am aware of only one scientific survey of Maplewood resident opinion that included a question about organized trash hauling.  The 2002 Ramsey County trash study made reference to it, and now I've received a copy of the 156-page survey report itself.

The survey was done in early December 1995, with 400 randomly selected residents and a margin of error of +/-5%.

Here are the results on the trash hauling topic, including the actual question posed:

(Click on the image to enlarge)

As you can see, 56% favored organized collection, 38% were opposed.

The comments on demographics are interesting, as it does seem that on average people who have contacted me in opposition to organized trash hauling have been older or retired. Numerous people who contacted me in favor of organized hauling said they couldn't attend the Monday meeting because of family obligations, which might be an indicator that younger residents with children and busy lives are both more inclined to favor organized hauling and less likely to find time to attend a meeting or contact their elected officials about it.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Media Roundup: Organized Hauling

Last night the council voted to adopt the "resolution of intent to organize."  This allows us to move into the planning phase to consider changes to our trash system, but whether that leads to an alternative system that a council majority would support is still an open question.

Ahead of last night's meeting, I was interviewed by Robert Moses of KSTP-TV on the topic of organized trash collection.  You can watch the story on their website.  (I was also interviewed yesterday by WCCO radio, but don't know if there's any link to to it online.)

Both this morning's Pioneer Press and Star Tribune have stories about last night's meeting.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 28, 2011

Today's Open Market Special: Red Herring

Before tonight's public hearing, I wanted to finish responding to the last of the talking points that NSWMA gave to us to support their position opposing any further discussion of organized collection. (Here's a link to all of the entries on this topic.)

The fourth and final set of NSWMA arguments display some pride in various accomplishments of waste haulers. Perhaps it is justified. However, in terms of actually illustrating distinctions between open hauling and organized collection, they're all red herrings -- rhetorical distractions designed to make us think positive things about waste haulers, and thus incline us to agree with their trade association, though the points are logically irrelevant to the issue at hand.

• An open market with competition is the best way to drive innovation, efficiency, and value. Value is not just price, but the combination of price, service, and environmental protection.

I have a few thoughts in response to this.

First of all, it seems to me that a basic element of an open market is that either party to a transaction can choose to walk away. In the case of trash hauling, residents are required to buy a service from a limited list of sellers. And that's only the tip of the iceberg of mandates, regulation, and barriers to entry that looms over the entire solid waste management sector. So whether or not this statement about "open markets" is true, it is irrelevant to Maplewood's situation where there is not a true open market.

Second, I would suggest that competitive bidding for neighborhoods is certainly competition, just like doing it house by house. Indeed, I would argue that it enhances the pressure toward value and innovation. Changes that would never be made at the request of just one household may be accommodated in order to win a contract for thousands. Cities with organized collection have the leverage to be on the leading edge of service options and improvements. Since most American cities have organized collection, it seems quite plausible that many innovations would be introduced first in response to the requests and requirements of large blocks of customers that those cities represent, then offered to the open hauling cities. If there is some evidence that only the household-by-household competition of open hauling cities drives innovation, NSWMA hasn't provided it. Lacking such evidence, this point is also irrelevant as an argument in favor open hauling.

Third, when it comes to efficiency, open hauling by definition means running multiple trucks and crews down the same routes. If a hauler establishes a commanding market share, and thereby increases efficiency, then it also loses the competitive pressure assumed to keep down prices. So it seems there's a little tension between the "efficiency" and "value" propositions -- or at least there's a point where increasing one is at the expense of the other. Organized collection, with its neighborhood-wide approach, can achieve both efficiency and value.

Finally, while I certainly appreciate the strides made by the waste industry toward environmental responsibility, I'm just not ready to accept the NSWMA's implication that it was all driven by the free market and corporate altruism, or that none of it came from pressures in the organized collection markets in which many of the same haulers work. Based on the track record of skewed and misleading information in NSWMA's communications to date, I'm going to assume the story is not exactly how they tell it. How many of those innovations in environmental protection came because of outside pressure -- such as government mandates, or actual or threatened lawsuits?

As I look at the NSWMA's lobbying priorities on their website, they suggest ongoing efforts to thwart the public interest in favor of their own short-term profits, flying in the face of their high-minded claims. A good example is their opposition to flow control (government requirements about where trash can go based on environmental priorities and the long-term public costs, as opposed to allowing haulers to take it wherever they can dump it most cheaply).

Continuing with their talking points...

• Private sector waste companies are innovators in reducing truck emissions.

Again, how much of those reductions are voluntary or driven by competition for individual customers? How many are in response to federal and state air quality regulations? And perhaps more importantly, how or why would it be any different under organized versus open hauling? As it stands, this point is irrelevant to our discussion, since it doesn't change no matter which system we use.

• Today's private sector hauling fleet puts "more rubber on the ground" effectively spreading the total load across the road. With open hauling this advantage is increased.

This statement reminds me of those ads for a 50% off sale that gush "the more you buy, the more you save!"

It's great that truck designs are improving to reduce wear on streets, and I appreciate the implicit acknowledgment that trash trucks' wear on streets is a problem worth addressing. I can't imagine they'd spend money on fleet upgrades if they had proof that it didn't matter. But imagine if we had just one truck spreading its load more effectively on one of our residential side streets, instead of three, four or eight...?

In other words, as an argument for open hauling, this is irrelevant. It works just as well as an argument for organized collection.

• Private haulers have supported the separate collection of yard waste for many years and designed collection systems that are efficient and customer friendly.
• Private haulers have been innovators in recycling programs and dramatically increased citizen participation in the amount of material recycled.

These statements may be true, but still don't demonstrate any benefit of open hauling over organized systems, given that private haulers are typically doing the work in both cases.  Again, we would need some reason to believe that these innovations come exclusively from open collection systems (whether trash or recycling), and then spread to organized cities.  It seems more likely that the reverse is the case.  We do know that studies have found that organized collection increases recycling. One referenced in the 2009 MPCA study found 13.5% more recycling pounds per households in cities with organized recycling collection, for example.

Lacking any explanation of why these final points, praiseworthy though they may be, distinguish open hauling from organized collection, we'll just have to identify them as red herrings written to evoke sympathy as well. Throw 'em in the trash bin along with all the other factual errors and logical fallacies that make up the bulk of NSWMA's arguments.

Perhaps we should say recycling bin, since I have no doubt that the same red herrings will be pulled out, dusted off, and offered to the next Minnesota community that tries to start a conversation on this topic.

Labels: ,

Talking Trash at the ENRC

A week ago, I attended a meeting of Maplewood's Environmental and Natural Resources Commission.  The ENRC has been studying solid waste management for several years, and it was their focusing on improving Maplewood's trash system that really advanced this onto the City Council's agenda.  The meeting included an update from staff on the process and upcoming hearing, and comments from commissioners on the topic.

During their Visitor Presentations, I had an opportunity to offer some of my own observations about this topic.  Here's an excerpt from the meeting:

The entire meeting is available for online viewing on the city website.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Star Tribune on Trash Hearing

Monday's Star Tribune has a short article about the upcoming public hearing and resolution of intent, and you can read it online already tonight.

Labels: ,

Administrative Expenses and NSWMA's Double-Billing

The next group of NSWMA talking points have to do with the fact that it takes some effort for Maplewood to switch to an organized collection system, and there would be some administrative costs after switching. While this basic point is true, they still manage to get the details wrong.


This statement might mislead some readers into thinking there are no costs to the city under the current system. We currently must allocate staff resources to licensing haulers, and state law (Minnesota Statutes 115A.941(a)) requires us to enforce our mandatory collection ordinance, for example. The NSWMA doesn't mention that a reduction in the cost of administering the current system would offset some expenses of an organized system.

• No City consultant needed at a price of $60,000.

City staff gave us three scenarios for the planning phase at our February 7th workshop. (You can read the meeting packet online with the details.) They gave us options of (a) all the work being done by city staff (which would take longest, as it gets stacked on top of their other day-to-day duties and requires them to learn about a lot of technical issues in order to do it), (b) some being done by staff and some by consultants, and finally (c) just putting it all in the hands of an outside consulting firm with expertise in this area.

The last option was estimated to cost a maximum of $60,000, but we didn't have any actual bid or quote.  Its scope would include "initial kick off meetings, resolution of intent to organize, draft organized system plan, discussions and negotiations with haulers, findings and final organized system plan, public relations and advertising, and project management."

The proposed funding source was the city's SCORE grant ("Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment"), funds that can only be spent on waste reduction and related activities, not property taxes.

We haven't yet selected one approach or another, since of course it depends on first deciding to move into a planning phase.  We may also change the scope (for example, in choosing whether or how much to spend on public relations and advertising related to the process) and reduce its potential cost.

It's unfortunate that specialized expertise is needed to make sure we follow all the rules and avoid the pitfalls in the statutory organized collection process. I believe you can thank the waste hauler interest groups that lobbied to make the rules as complex as they are.  They probably figured, rightly, that the more complex and cumbersome the process was made to be, the less likely any cities would actually follow it through and the more opportunities they would have to sabotage it along the way.

• No additional City staff needed for drafting, negotiating, monitoring, and enforcing contracts.

The assumed expenditure in the previous point already included the drafting and negotiating of hauling agreements, so it appears that NSWMA is double-billing us by listing it as a staff expense as well.

Come to think of it, that recent mailing which lists both the up-to-$5000 for public hearing preparation (including, for example, the postcard that the city mailed to notify residents of the hearing) and up-to-$60,000 for the whole potential scope of work (including all of the public hearing and resolution expenses), is charging us twice for the same thing as well.  This is starting to look like a habit.

In any case, as with their shameless distortions of public opinion data, this another example warning us that we simply can't trust NSWMA to give us accurate information.

• No additional City staff needed to field complaints from citizens about contract hauler.

This is a repetition of the "monitoring, and enforcing contracts" part of the previous point. Staff addressed it in the report for our February 7th workshop:

Administration of Collection System Contracts

During the November 2010 workshop, the city council inquired about the cost of administering a collection system contract. Administrative costs vary depending on how a contract is structured, i.e., whether the contractor or the city does the billing, customer complaints, education, etc. Using the administration of the city’s recycling contract as an example, the city budgets 20 percent of one employee’s time to this administration. This is equivalent to approximately $18,000 yearly.

As I've said many times before, I want to keep the city's role minimal -- the haulers should handle billing, customer service, etc., with the city only stepping in if a problem can't otherwise be resolved or it's otherwise necessary to enforce some part of the contract.  (Our recycling contract enumerates liquidated damages for various service failures, for example.)  So I would expect the administrative load to be comparable if not less than what is involved in the recycling contract.  And as I mentioned before, organized collection would likely mean a reduction in other current city administrative expenses.

To put that up-to-$18,000-per-year in perspective, I've run various estimates on what organized collection would be likely to save for Maplewood households compared to their current bills.  I come up with numbers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  Seems to me like a pretty good return on investment, without even adding in the other benefits to the environment and our residents' health.

Labels: ,

EOW Service

I came across an interesting option available in some cities with organized collection: service that is every other week instead of weekly.

In the city of Wayzata, for example, it appears that you can pay $7.49 (plus tax) for weekly service of a 30-gallon trash bin, or only $3.28 + tax if it's picked up every other week.  In comparison, the lowest Maplewood rate appears to be $12.05 for weekly service of this size bin.

(When I compare pricing around the metro, I try to back out the taxes because they vary greatly from county to county and would be applied the same whether under open hauling or organized collection.  In Hennepin County, they have a 9% tax on residential waste.  Their county also uses part of their property tax levy for solid waste management.  Ramsey County, in comparison, applies a 28% tax on residential trash bills.  In both counties, there's a 9.75% state tax.)


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Informal Survey Finds Majority of Bogus Polls Support NSWMA

Continuing with those NSWMA talking points:

70% of Maplewood citizens in City conducted poll opposed government managed organized collection.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it?  Though you might be wondering, "What city-conducted poll?  Why did I hear nothing about this?"

In the August 2009 city newsletter (here's the page), then-mayor Longrie described her "informal survey to citizens throughout Maplewood as part of a 2009 citizen outreach initiative."  That sure sounds like a euphemism for "reelection campaign," especially when paired with a list of potential campaign issues for testing.  And she asks you to send opinions to her "office" -- not city hall, but her law office/campaign headquarters.

Her opinion article tells us that, of the first 65 people Diana Longrie thought to ask if "the City should mandate one designated residential trash collector," 45 of them said no.  I would not surprise me if a large majority of them also predicted her landslide re-election.

Needless to say, like the so-called polls of NSWMA, this is useless in terms accurately measuring resident opinion.  It certainly raises questions about the reliability of any information that NSWMA gives us, if they're willing to offer this as a data point.

I should add: Apparently the City of Maplewood once hired an outside firm to do a real survey of residents on a variety of city topics, back in 1996, including organized collection.  That survey found that 57% of residents supported some form of organized collection.

While mysteriously failing to mention that survey, the NSWMA goes on to talk about their own postcard "poll":

Over 1,000 households in Maplewood expressed their opposition to proceeding forward by sending postcards to the City Council before the special council meeting on October 4, 2010.

Of course, this means that up to 13,882 households didn't send in those postcards.

Let's put this in perspective. The NSWMA sent its mailer to many thousands of households, with pre-stamped postcards inside and a slanted letter designed to provoke a knee-jerk reaction. (They do this every time a community talks about organizing, and they have it down to an art.)  Easier to send in those postcards than to vote, wouldn't you say? I wouldn't say that Longrie successfully made organized hauling a campaign issue in 2009, but even she got more votes than NSWMA got postcards.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 25, 2011

Townhomes & Associations

The topic of townhomes and homeowners' associations has come up in several of my conversations with residents.

From looking at other cities with organized collection, it seems typical that homeowners' associations are exempted from the city's organized collection arrangement, just like apartments and commercial buildings.  If an association is already using competitive bidding to select a single hauler for all their members' homes, then they are already able to achieve the general goals of organized collection.

What we might be able to do is offer the associations the option to join on the city contract, in case it offers a better price or service options than they can get on their own.  I don't know if it would be easy to include that option in an organization plan, but it's something we could include in the discussions if we approve Monday's resolution and move into a planning phase.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fact Check: Oak Park Heights

Reviewing the report for Monday's meeting, I was reminded of the comments of one resident at our October hearing. This resident stated his conviction that residents of Oak Park Heights have been stuck with increased rates and decreased service as a result of a switch to organized hauling -- perhaps just the sort of example I've been listening for.

At the time I remember thinking, how much of an increase? Rates in open hauling cities have increased over the years, too.  So we'd need to know more to make anything of an observation that rates in an organized collection city increased over some period of time.

Prompted by re-reading the October comments, today I looked up the Oak Park Heights website, to see how their current rates compare to Maplewood residents pay for trash pickup.  What I learned took me by surprise.  Here's what they say on their "Utility Billing Rates" page:

Effective January 1, 2008, the City will be covering the fees for basic residential coverage. Should you have extra items beyond what can fit in your container, the fee is $1.50 per additional bag of waste; $13.00 per cubic yard of construction materials; and a small fee for toilets and porcelain/iron objects.

The following items will be picked up at no additional cost to you: yard waste, recycleables, couches, chairs, refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers, water heaters, televisions, tables, ovens, desks, and other large household items.
Their "Garbage & Recycling" page has a more detailed list of what is picked up at no extra charge:
Typical items that are collected at no charge are:
  • Large metal household items including refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, humidifiers, stoves, dishwashers, washers and dryers, water heaters, furnaces, air conditioners, televisions, and water softeners
  • Household items too large to place in container, such as counches, sofas, chairs, dressers, beds, mattresses, desks, and tables
The hauler, Veolia, does charge the residents quarterly -- but only for the Washington County Solid Waste Tax.  Perhaps that tax increased at some point, and that anecdote is the basis of the resident's testimony.  But of course, the same increase would have been applied to customers of haulers in open system cities in the same county at the same time.


Belief Versus Fact

Returning to those NSWMA talking points...  We are told:

Many residents believe the competitive market will provide the best value (price and service) for any service they need.

Many residents have expressed their lack of confidence in government to provide long-term value (price and service).

Any number of people believing something does not make it true. I think public policy should be based on the most accurate available information, not mistaken beliefs, however many people might hold them.

No city has organized trash collection since the early 1990s. I think it's fair to say that every city in Minnesota that has organized collection is well into the “long-term” horizon. Yet rather than providing us with any evidence that would suggest service problems or high prices demonstrating a lack of long-term value in those many communities, the NSWMA is reduced to appealing to the unfounded beliefs of “many residents” as a reason to oppose organization.

In every study I've encountered so far, cities with organized collection have, over the long term, enjoyed comparable or superior service and lower prices compared to open hauling systems like Maplewood.

In a recent e-mail exchange with me, one resident cited a city where she believed the problems were an example of why not to have organized collection.  So I looked into it, and it's actually a city with open collection, just like Maplewood.  What has apparently happened is that the number of licensed haulers is down to only two or three.  Whether those haulers built their market share by competition, buying out rivals, or influencing the city's licensing process in some way to keep newcomers out, I can't tell you.  The result, from what this woman told me, is not to pass on any of the savings from efficiency with their customers, but to charge customers in this city even higher prices than the same haulers do in adjacent communities.  To me, this is a perfect illustration of the illusion of market freedom in the current system, and the motivation of some haulers in opposing change.  The history of trash hauler consolidation and vertical integration over the past two decades suggests we'll see more of this as time goes on.

Finally, as long as we're talking about what “many residents believe,” we might also acknowledge the many residents who have a lack of confidence in corporations to properly account for long-term costs as opposed to short-term profits, especially when they have a long history of successfully dumping those costs on taxpayers and the public at large long after the fact.  Unlike the beliefs cited by NSWMA, this one seems to have some awfully good trash-industry-specific data to support it (see, for example, closed landfill clean-up costs).

Labels: ,

Public Opinion 2002

Back in 2002, Ramsey and Washington Counties looked at their trash systems and considered whether to move to county-wide organized collection.  Their study resulted in a very detailed report, which you can still access on a page of the Ramsey County website.

I vaguely remember when this was going on.  I don't remember ever reading anything about it from the county.  I do remember noticing some expensive, glossy propaganda from an industry group, which in retrospect must have been NSWMA, warning about the terrible things that would supposedly happen if I didn't take action to stop it.

While I don't recall sending any comments to the county, they were keeping track of all the input they received.  As with our present situation, it needs to be remembered that the waste haulers' group was waging a large and well-financed PR campaign to promote their self-interested view, without any counterbalancing public-interest advocacy group that I'm aware of on the other side.  (If there was such a group, I don't remember hearing from them.)  The county did send out a questionnaire to residents, in order to get a larger range of responses, but it's likely that a fair number of responses were motivated and biased by the NSWMA efforts.

The appendix of the report that discusses "public engagement" analyzes the feedback received by the county over the course of their study.  With a total of 7,393 messages received (far more than I've gotten), the breakdown was: 37% strongly supported or leaned toward supporting organized collection; 26% were undecided, felt they needed more information, or did not state an opinion; 36% were strongly opposed to or leaning against organized collection.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Staff Report for Public Hearing

The packet is available now for Monday's council meeting, including the public hearing on organized collection.  I've extracted the staff report for just the organized collection public hearing (Item H1), and posted it to Google Docs.


Latest in the NSWMA PR Campaign

In case you haven't been keeping an eye on the NSWMA website, you might be interested to know that their PR hacks and lawyer-lobbyists have put out some fresh propaganda, a web page devoted to their spin on Maplewood.  (In case it vanishes or is edited at some point, here's a printed-to-PDF version for posterity.)  I believe a couple of the e-mails I received yesterday were already repeating its talking points.

A lot of their focus is on the city budget. Let me share a few thoughts in that regard.

First, trash hauling is mandated by the law in Maplewood. You must hire a hauler for weekly pickup, and you can only hire one licensed by the city government.  I guess it's not actually a tax, because you are handing the cash to one of that NSWMA lawyer's clients, not a government employee.  Still, as an elected official, I feel some duty to try and make sure that, if we are requiring residents to buy a specific service from a limited list of private corporations, those services should be delivered efficiently and our residents should be charged as little as possible.

Isn't that just basic "good government"? To do otherwise -- as the NSWMA demands -- seems, dare I say, kinda corrupt.

Second, let's do some back-of-the-envelope math. A White Bear Lake 30-gallon container costs $9.25 per month, including the recycling charge. The average rate reported to the city by our licensed haulers for this size container is $13.87 per month, plus residents pay $2.22 for recycling separately. (This also doesn't include fuel surcharges or any other fees that haulers routinely slip into Maplewood bills, or the lower rate that WBL seniors get.) So call it a difference of $6.84 per month, or $82.08 per year. For a sense of scale, I believe the median Maplewood house pays about $740 this year in city property taxes.

Imagine I told you that it appears there is a service you are required to buy, and a small change in procurement method (hauling contracts bid competitively by neighborhood/zone rather than by individual house) would bring operational efficiencies and market forces such that you could save the equivalent of 11% of your annual city taxes, with no reduction of service.  Wouldn't it be crazy not to look into that, especially in these times when we so often hear about the financial challenges our residents face?

Third, the talking points also discuss some dollar figures concerning the hearing and the possibility of hiring a consultant to manage the planning process if we go forward. One thing to keep in mind is that the numbers provided to us were "not-to-exceed" figures, estimates from staff made without actual proposals for the services.  Another thing to consider is that the proposed funding source is not property taxes, but a grant that can only be used for waste reduction/education/technical assistance, etc.

As for the complexity of the whole process and the need to consider hiring expert consultants in the first place — for that, I believe you can thank the NSWMA and their kin, who helped write so much extra trouble and expense into the law, and now pay their own attorney to attend every meeting we hold and make sure that it is followed in all its needlessly-bureaucratic, pointlessly-complex, protective-of-status-quo-business-interests-over-consumer-interests glory.

Fourth, their web page also tries to stir fear of future costs to adminster an organized collection plan, if one is adopted. That seems dramatically overblown. Administration of our recycling program, which is more intensive (it involves a lot of work with respect to outreach to multifamily dwellings, producing and distributing educational materials, etc.) accounts for a fraction of a single city employee's time.  Relative to the likely savings to Maplewood's 14,882 households, that seems like a great return on investment, without even considering that we might be using some dedicated waste-reduction/management funding source (like the aforementioned grant) instead of property taxes to pay for it, and that we would be reducing other adminstrative expenses we already have in relation to trash (such as licensing the haulers, enforcing the mandatory collection law, etc.).

A final thought: It's kind of nice to be characterized as budget-slashers for a change (they spend a lot of time discussing our "tough cuts in municipal programs"). Usually we get told that we're out-of-control spenders who haven't fired half the city staff like we should every year. Just to be cast as a different kind of demonized public servant is refreshing, even if the effort taken as a whole is a little weak. (In Maplewood, we are accustomed to some pretty over-the-top demonizing in our local political tradition, so elected officials like me have developed high standards.)

But just as a tip for whichever intern was given the job of hashing that piece together: It feels to me like it creates some cognitive dissonance. I mean, if we're obviously frugal on one hand, and then you pose it as a mystery that we'd supposedly be growing the city budget and increasing costs to residents, doesn't that just raise questions? You have to be careful about accidentally stimulating critical thinking, rather than just pushing emotional buttons, when you're writing a manipulative, slanted piece like that. Readers may reflect on whether the people you're speaking for, who profit richly from the current situation at our residents' expense, might not be telling the whole story. And surely you wouldn't want that!

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Push Polling versus Persuasion

You may not be surprised to hear that the city council is getting a lot of e-mails and phone calls on the topic of organized trash collection. (If you want to share your own thoughts on this topic, I encourage you to do so -- you can e-mail the whole council at once by writing to  As usual, I'm working hard to reply to every e-mail and return every phone message.

A couple of folks have asked, in essence, "How can you even consider doing this when it's obvious that most people are vehemently opposed?"

Setting aside the question of whether elected officials are supposed to do what they believe is popular versus what they conclude is right, let me say that it's absolutely not clear to me that a majority of residents would oppose development of an organized collection plan.

There's a big PR campaign underway, not to educate residents, but to prompt them to contact the City Council in support of the NSWMA's protect-the-status-quo-profits agenda. It's crafted to generate the impression of broad popular support for their position. Turning out a passionate minority to advocate for your position (including various residents declaring as "fact" things you know to be false, and know better than to be caught saying on the record yourself) is not the same as speaking for a majority of the citizens. In their fight against the facts and the public good, NSWMA has relied on this skillful illusion of a popular majority to suppress efforts at organization in Minnesota over the past two decades.

Consider for example the "survey" on their website, which is mentioned in their mass mailing.  The "survey" consists of only one checkbox, which is marked: "Check here, if you are opposed to government managed waste collection. By checking this box, you also give us approval to share information about your opposition and your comments with local officials."  (The NSWMA postcard last fall similarly was a "survey" with the only explicit option being to agree with them.  You had to write in your own somewhere on the card, as numerous people did, if you didn't agree with what they wanted you to say.)

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that at our March 28th hearing, NSWMA's lawyer will tell us that darn near 100% of respondents to their online survey opposed organized collection.  He won't even be able to share the comments of anyone else, because the web form is set up so that you must agree with them in order to authorize them to share your opinion with the city. As a gauge of resident opinion, their "survey" will be worthless.  But remember, it's not really a survey; its purpose is to push peoples' buttons so that they will lobby their Council with the NSWMA's talking points.  (As I heard from a couple of folks on Friday, NSWMA wasn't even answering their phone if you tried to call them about their mailer.)

I've been tracking the opinions of people who contact me to get a read on public sentiment on the question, "Should we consider organizing our trash collection?" and how it might be changing.  I have built a database of everyone who has phoned or e-mailed.  It also includes all the people who sent those postcards last fall, if they had an e-mail address; I had manually entered all that info so that I could send them all my FAQ in reply.

So at the outset, because of the NSWMA PR campaign, I think it's reasonable to expect the comments we receive to be overwhelmingly skewed toward their side of the issue.  The numbers bear this out: people who have contacted me have started out 91.6% against organization, 1.7% neutral or undecided; and 6.7% in favor.

That's total.  If you look at just the e-mail I've received since Friday and the latest NSWMA mailer, it is interesting that opposition has dropped to 74%; 3% neutral; and 23% favoring organized collection.  At least one in six anti-organization writers had also written us last fall (the "at least" meaning I don't know if more sent in postcards without an e-mail address on it); the only pro-organization person who had written previously...was previously opposed, but has changed her mind.

By Saturday afternoon, I had already received more e-mails in favor of organization than I got in the entire run-up to October's hearing.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the other opinion I'm tracking: What do people think now, after I've had the chance to offer them more information?  If they reply to my e-mail, what position do they now take?  If we talk on the phone, what is their opinion at the end of the conversation?

The results are remarkable: Opposition to organized collection drops to 44.0%.  37.6% favor organized collection.  18.4% are willing to see us try to develop a plan that they could evaluate.  And remember, we're starting with a sample that was skewed by the NSWMA's hoodwinking campaign.

Obviously this is not a random sample or scientific polling.  But it does tell me that, if given information about what we're actually considering and why, a majority of residents agree that we should develop an organized collection plan and see how it compares to the current system.

Whether or not to actually implement a specific plan is, of course, a different question, one we can't meaningfully ask unless we pass the "resolution of intent to organize" and move into the planning phase.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Right on Time

Friday, exactly when expected (ten days ahead of the hearing), there was a new, misleading letter from the National Solid Waste Management Association in Maplewood mailboxes, stirring up fears about organized collection.

In case you haven't seen it, or missed the details as it went straight in the recycling bin, here's the envelope it comes in (open immediately! it insists with alarm):

And here's the letter itself:

(If the embedded Google Docs gives you trouble, try this direct link.)

As with last fall's mailing, they apparently are using a defective mailing list, and are spamming many residents of neighboring communities. Friday I heard from several Saint Paul residents who were annoyed to receive it. They called me because my home phone number is on the letter, and no one answered when they tried to reach the NSWMA phone number in the letter.


Saturday, March 19, 2011


Apparently interesting things happen on the weekends in legislative tax committees.

Today the House Tax Committee was finishing their omnibus bill, and the last amendment made was to repeal the metropolitan fiscal disparities program. The amendment was proposed by DFL Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington, and adopted on a 12-10 vote.

Fiscal disparities is a program that redistributes property taxes generated by commercial properties.  Cities pay in based on their commercial tax base, and then get paid back according to another formula. Maplewood has a strong commercial tax base (around the Maplewood Mall, for a conspicuous example) so we pay a lot in and get less back.

The Metro Council has a map that shows the top 20 contributors, including Maplewood.  Another map shows the top 20 recipients.

The fiscal disparities formula has been in need of some attention and reform for a long time.  I've griped about it myself, as I'm sure have the mayors and councilmembers of many similarly situated metro suburbs.  (Rep. Lenczewski is a former Bloomington councilmember, and they too are a big net contributor — #1 last year, in fact.)  However, just dropping it all at once is a pretty shocking change.

It might actually be a windfall for Maplewood.  Pair it with the proposed elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit program (to be replaced with a class rate reduction for qualifying homes), and it seems theoretically possible that the 2012 levy certified by the city would actually represent the taxes that would be received by Maplewood to pay for our city government.

For cities that are big net recipients of fiscal disparities, it could be a harsh blow to their finances.  Further complicating things, the disparities figures affect calculation of local government aid, for the cities that still receive it.  So the change would ripple out to affect outstate communities, presumably by shifting some of their LGA to metro suburbs.

Lenczewski is a savvy politician and probably one of the most knowledgeable legislators in the state on tax issues.  Given her Bloomington council background, I'll bet she does want to see fiscal disparities reform.  But it's also possible that she's playing Eris and, in this radical form, the repeal is her golden apple, rolling into the middle of the House floor.  Yesterday I linked to an article about the politics in the tax bill.  This new amendment has the potential to pit one suburb against another, as well as to pull in the outstate cities with even bigger dollar reductions in LGA than looked to be the case a day ago, and thereby turn the local interests of some House Republican caucus members against each other.

Of course, we don't know what a final bill that passes either chamber will look like, nor whether it will be greeted by a veto pen at the governor's desk.  And it's way to soon to seriously think Maplewood is going to see a windfall from this, and if we did I wouldn't trust that it wouldn't be taken away by another bill the next year.  But in the completely rearranged political landscape we have in the state this year, who knows what might happen?


Maplewood Census Data

The Metropolitan Council has an updated community profile for Maplewood, based on 2010 census data.  The census found that in 2010 we had a population of 38,018 and 14,882 households.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Politics of Selective Aid Cuts

In "The suburbs versus the cities," Paul Demko of Politics in Minnesota unpacks the political undercurrents of the Minnesota House Republican bill cutting aid to Minnesota cities.  Worth reading.

Labels: ,

Thought Experiment

A while back I noted that the NSWMA's talking points are conspicuous for lacking examples of cities that have abandoned organized collection, or of real-life problems that validate the negative expectations that some residents have.

So here's a thought experiment.  Imagine that Maplewood already had organized collection today, and we were instead talking about a switch to an open hauling system.  Here's what we'd need to tell our residents, to educate them about the change:

  • A change to open hauling will increase your trash bills, probably by 20% to 50%.
  • Depending on who offers service in your neighborhood, you'll need to choose from as many as eight haulers. To minimize the increase to your trash bill, you'll need to contact and negotiate with all of them. They'll each offer slightly different plans that may be hard to compare (especially if they may or may not charge you for extra services when you need them), and to get the best deal you may have to agree to a long-term contract.
  • If you've worked hard to reduce the amount of trash you produce, you'll experience a much bigger cost increase than your neighbors who throw away many times as much as you do and don't bother to separate their recycling.
  • The one garbage truck that drives down your street now on trash pickup day will probably be replaced by 2 to 8 trucks throughout the day, belching diesel exhaust as they drive by.  Please pardon the noise if some or all of them drive by at hours when you're trying to sleep.
  • Even if you have a long-term contract, it will probably have a clause that allows your hauler to jack up their bottom line later with "fuel surcharges" and other special line-items whenever they think they can get away with it.  If you don't have a contract, they can raise rates whenever they like.
  • You should set aside a few hours every few months to study your bill closely and call competing haulers, to see if you can get a better deal.  Then you'll need to either renegotiate with your current hauler or switch to a new one.  This may sound like a pain, but it's your responsibility in order to make the "efficient market system" work as it's expected to.  If you don't do it, the market will punish you with higher rates.
  • Because your government won't be involved anymore, you shouldn't resent the time you spend on this or the higher rates you pay. Think of it as a celebration of your economic liberty, instead!
How do you think that would go over?


Thursday, March 17, 2011

What Is Choice Worth?

Any plan for organized collection could expand certain choices for the consumer (for example, allowing more container size options or services that some haulers don't currently offer). But reducing the number of haulers means limiting some other choices. Several NSWMA talking points restate this observation in different ways.

• Freedom of choice is very important to residents.
• Many residents prefer to make buying decisions without influence of government.
• The open market allows residents to easily switch haulers when they are not happy.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carnival gives us an unbalanced view, weighted entirely toward open hauling. All else being equal, people may prefer choice in almost anything – but it is rarely the case that all else is equal. Certainly it's not the case when it comes to trash disposal.

So the question is not whether people think choice is important (of course we do), but how important it is and which choices matter most. How much more money are residents willing to spend on hauling in order to maintain the feeling they have a "freedom of choice?" Would residents rather trade their choice of hauler for more choices among the services offered, or for control of other aspects of waste management (e.g., the choice not to bequeath overflowing landfills to our children)?

With respect to the "influence of government" on our choices, the fact is that government already has an enormous impact on our buying decisions about trash disposal. Not every Twin Cities hauler is licensed to do business in Maplewood, for example, and there are laws about what you can put in the trash.

I realize that some residents would prefer to have no government regulation of waste management at all, such as the resident who told me he's still angry that he can't use burn barrels to dispose of trash in his backyard. Our government's decision to disallow his open burning wasn't out of spite, mind you; it was because burning might have been cheap and convenient for him, but it shifted the ultimate but less-immediate costs of his trash onto his neighbors and the rest of the public, whose environment and health were harmed.  Regulations like this are part of what the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution explains as the purpose of American government, to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...” Our Founding Fathers recognized that we need government to protect the interests of the people and the future generations who will inherit this great land.

As for the claim that the open market lets unhappy residents easily switch haulers, there's some argument to be made over how easy it actually is to switch haulers in practice. Haulers often entice us with introductory rates and long-term contracts, impose cancellation penalties, and make us jump through hoops to cancel service (such as having to call a different number and talk to someone whose job is to try and cajole you into staying with them).

More importantly, there's as question as to how much choice we really have as consumers, with only the leverage of one household each. Sure, we can choose based on price, but if that's all that really matters then the fact that prices are lower under organized collection should persuade us. Do we get to choose where our trash is hauled and how it's ultimately disposed of? Do we get to choose what kinds of trucks are used on our streets, or how many? Organized hauling can give us the ability to make these choices as a community, where open hauling does not.

Speaking for myself, the current consumer “choice” of trash hauler reminds me a lot of Henry Ford's famous line, that Model T buyers could choose “Any color, so long as it’s black.”

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Police Memorial Fundraiser

Mark your calendar: On April 23, from 2 to 10 PM, a fundraiser will be held at the Maplewood Community Center, with proceeds going to fund a Fallen Officer Memorial to remember Sgt. Joe Bergeron and honor his sacrifice.  The event will include a silent auction and a raffle.

You can find more information on the Police Department's web page.

Even if you can't make it to the event, donations are welcome, whether in cash (just make your check payable to the Maplewood Police Benefit Fund) or silent auction items. Contact the police department at 651-249-2600 for more details.

As I understand it, the Fund has been organized as a 501c3 charity, so donations are tax-deductible.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Remarkable Sense of Entitlement

Continuing my responses to the NSWMA's talking points provided by Douglas Carnival, I find that their next three points express a remarkable sense of entitlement, especially for an industry group that purports to advocate competition.

• A privately-held infrastructure has been built to serve this community need.

Many businesses have invested in privately-held infrastructure to serve public needs. Look at construction companies that do road and bridge projects, and how much they have to invest in heavy equipment. That doesn't entitle them to guaranteed returns on their capital; they still have to submit winning bids and actually do the work.

We live in a large and diverse metropolitan area, which predominantly has open hauling, as well as biddable contracts to serve organized communities. Anyone who fails to win a bid for part of Maplewood's business can continue to use the same infrastructure to serve other communities.

• Government intervention will result in loss of investments made by private companies without just compensation.

"Just compensation" is one of NSWMA's hobby horses. They believe that when communities decide to organize trash hauling with competitive bidding, as opposed to cartel-type arrangements that guarantee haulers their current market share and prop up their profit margins, that any companies who fail to compete successfully deserve a government handout to pay them for the work they're not doing.

Communities have been choosing various forms of organized collection in Minnesota for more than a hundred years. State law gives cities the cities and counties the explicit authority to do it, and lays out a specific process to follow. Waste in general is a highly regulated field on the state, federal, and local level, subject to constantly changing mandates and requirements. Courts have time and again found that organized collection does not constitute a regulatory taking for displaced businesses.

Given these facts, it's hard to imagine that any halfway competent business in the waste management field would fail to account for regulatory risk as part of their business plan and disclosures to investors. (Check out the Form 10-K SEC filings of the publicly traded haulers for examples.) Whether it's a public firm or private, that regulatory risk should be included in any valuation model used to calculate the company's worth.

Anyone who invests in or builds a company in this industry should know what they're getting into and take responsibility for their choices, not demand a government bailout disguised as "just compensation" if their investment turns sour.

• Small haulers may be forced out of the community and lose customers through no fault of their own.

I don't know if it's still the case, but last fall when I checked their membership list on the NSWMA website, none of Maplewood's small haulers were listed. Talking about "small haulers" is a rhetorical strategy, used to short circuit our logic and make us read the sentence in emotional terms and identify with the "little guy."

Another appeal to sympathy is embedded in the phrase "through no fault of their own." Look past the victim rhetoric at what it's saying: A company that fails to win a contract through a competitive bidding process is not responsible for that end result. Really? I have trouble believing that anyone who can offer this line with a straight face is really a believer in the market or competition.

So let's edit Mr. Carnival's phrase for accuracy:

"Large, multinational conglomerates headquartered in other states and foreign countries may lose customers through their unwillingness or inability to compete."

To which I would respond: So what?

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Dog in the Night-Time

In the "The Adventure of Silver Blaze," Sherlock Holmes calls attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." When Inspector Gregory responds, "The dog did nothing in the night-time," Holmes explains, "That was the curious incident."  The dog didn't bark because he knew the intruder.

Similarly, we should pay close attention to what we don't hear in those NSWMA talking points, but should have expected. We know all about the cities that saw the benefits of organizing and attempted to do it, but were driven back by the vocal opposition of some of their constituents. We know all about the fears of residents who oppose organized collection, but have not actually experienced it. The NSWMA talking points are long on beliefs and theories. Where are the examples from cities that have actually implemented organized collection and their residents who have experienced it, to demonstrate those theories and justify those beliefs?  How about a Minnesota city that encountered problems such as high prices and poor service from organized collection, and therefore decided to switch to open hauling in recent years?  Or even a city where there has been a popular outcry and demand to switch away from an organized system?

State law has a very restrictive process for moving to organized collection, but it seems it would be very easy to abandon it. A city could probably switch to open hauling any time their contract with a city-wide hauler or haulers expired, without so much as a public hearing on the topic. You would suppose, then, that it would be relatively easy for residents who are unhappy with their city's organized collection to persuade their leaders to abandon organized collection, if there was widespread dissatisfaction with the results.

NSWMA's silence here may be more informative than all the talking points and bluster that its lawyer sends our way.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Breaking News on Aids & Credits to Cities

The Property and Local Tax Dvision of the Minnesota Houses of Representatives posted a spreadsheet late last night with their Division Report, including their proposed changes to property tax aids and credits.  It appears that the House Republicans propose a complete elimination of Local Government Aid for all Metro suburbs by fiscal 2013, and all cities of the first class (i.e., Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Duluth) will have zero LGA by 2015.

Maplewood has not received LGA in years, so this won't have a direct impact on us.  It is likely to be very painful for some of our neighbor cities, however.

The proposal also includes cuts to Market Value Homestead Credit (which Maplewood receives in theory, though it was unallotted or otherwise eliminated in recent years) in 2011, and a complete elimination of the program thereafter.  The plan seems to involve a change to how property taxes are calculated, designed to reduce the taxes paid by properties that now receive MVHC, although there would still be a net reduction in the amount of property tax relief being provided.  It would mean that the levy figure we set each year would no longer include hundreds of thousands of dollars that the state promises to pay Maplewood on behalf of homeowners, but then doesn't.

I don't have a really clear picture right now of exactly how this would impact Maplewood.  In our specific situation, where we receive no LGA and have made the assumption that we would receive no MVHC, it might all have little impact to some positive effect for our city finances (if it means that we'll actually receive more of the money in our levy).  But for a great many Minnesota cities, it would be painful and disruptive.  And for homeowners state-wide who now receive the homestead credit (which basically means homes under $400,000 in value -- here's a primer from the LMC with more detailed info), it is likely to result in an increase in their property tax bill when the MVHC line goes away.


Life Savers

One of the pleasures of the City Council job is when we give recognition to heroes in our community, such as the two groups of life-savers who were recognized at recent council meetings for their actions in saving two lives in Maplewood.  Cory Streeter tells their story in this week's Maplewood Review.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 11, 2011

Upcoming Commission Appointments

We're coming up on another round of appointments and reappointments to the city's various volunteer advisory boards and commissions.  Applications are now being accepted for the following:

  • Community Design Review Board
  • Heritage Preservation Commission
  • Housing Redevelopment Authority
  • Business & Economic Development Commission
  • Parks & Recreation Commission

More information and an application can be found on the city's website.  Friday, March 18th, is the deadline for applications.

Does Your Hauler Love You?

Continuing their appeal to sentimentalism, NSWMA asserts:

• Customers have developed personal relationships with their haulers.

This seems like a broad generalization. Shouldn't they say some customers? If the claim is that all customers have developed personal relationships with their haulers, it sounds to me like they'll also have personal relationships with anyone who hauls their trash under an organized collection scheme.

What kind of relationship is it, anyway? Between the resident and the actual person picking up trash? Does it vanish then if the worker is fired or assigned a different route? Or with the owners/managers of the company? Does it vanish if there's a change of ownership? If it's a “personal relationship” with the corporation itself, what exactly does that mean? Do their Articles of Incorporation sometimes call you on weekends to ask for relationship advice?

I realize that some people may feel a sense of personal attachment to their trash hauler, whether it's from knowing the name of a guy they always see at the end of their driveway or a warm fondness for a particular color of truck. From a marketing standpoint, creating that sense of relationship is very valuable. A customer who who feels a personal connection to a brand is likely to stay a customer longer, even in the face of price increases and service problems.

But I don't see why the success of a corporation in implementing its marketing strategy should be what decides our city's public policy.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Garbage Trucks Killing Pedestrians

At our February 28th council meeting, a resident in Visitor Presentations asked “Has anybody been run over by a garbage truck? No.”

I'm aware of at least one Maplewood fatality involving a pedestrian killed by a garbage truck. Apparently it's not an unknown occurrence, to judge from a recent tweet from the National Solid Waste Management Association:

Five people were killed last week in five separate accidents involving garbage trucks. Please be careful on the route!!!!!!
8:23 AM Dec 14th, 2010 via Facebook

Labels: ,

The "Tradition of Service"

The NSWMA talking points start with a rosy bit of nostalgia:


Let me offer a counterpoint to their nostalgia with alternative view of the history of waste management.

The current system already includes a great deal of frankly intrusive government regulation, precisely because decades of unfettered "free enterprise" trash disposal led to environmental nightmares across the nation. American taxpayers have spent billions of dollars to clean up the messes left behind by private businesses who were focused primarily if not exclusively on serving their own bottom line. This "tradition of service" by private industry includes superfund sites, unlicensed dumps, toxic waste disposed right along with household waste, and perfluorochemicals contaminating groundwater right next door to Maplewood today.

Consider just one trash-related program just in Minnesota: the Closed Landfill Program set up in 1994. Through FY 2010, the program has spent a total of almost $341 million. So far, the former owners or operators of the landfills have contributed just $15.4 million toward that tab.

Trash management has become much better in recent decades, but let's be honest – many private haulers (and certainly their trade association) have been brought along kicking and screaming, invoking “free enterprise” as a bogus defense against efforts by government to protect the public good, the health of environment, and the quality of life on the planet we leave behind to our children.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Anti-Organization Perspective

After our February 28th meeting, when we voted on whether or not to call a public hearing on the trash topic, the City Council received a two-page list of talking points from Douglas Carnival, the attorney representing the National Solid Waste Management Association, arguing in favor of open hauling versus organization.

I am sure that the NSWMA will be spending some money to communicate their views directly to Maplewood residents in the near future, but if you don't want to wait for something to show up in your mailbox I scanned the document we received and put it online:

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I take issue with many of Mr. Carnival's points. At the risk of turning this into the "organized collection blog," I'll try to respond to as many as I can before our March 28th hearing.

Labels: ,

Minnesota Solid Waste History

Back in 2002, the Research Department at the Minnesota House of Representatives produced a handy information brief entitled "Minnesota Solid Waste History: Major Milestones."  Its ten pages summarize the progress in solid waste management from the open burning* and open dumping of the 1960s through 2002.

A key point in the timeline is the 1994 Carbone v. Clarkstown decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which found "flow control" ordinances (telling a private hauler where they could dispose of their non-recyclable, non-hazardous municipal solid wastes) to be unconstitutional.  A more recent (2007) decision, United Haulers Association v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority, came to a different conclusion when an ordinance required the haulers to bring their waste to a publicly owned and operated facility as opposed to a privately owned facility as was the case in Carbone.

*One resident who contacted me last fall in opposition to organized hauling mentioned that he's still chafing over not being allowed to use a burn barrel like the good old days.


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

An Economic Right?

"ClassicLiberal" recently wrote in the comments, "I am pro choice on this and most of the people in Maplewood are too in regards to this economic right," and, "The question Mr. Nephew is not WHAT should be organized but WHO should decide."

The fact that some cities have decided not to organize does not establish choice of residential trash hauler as a universal right of individuals. The State of Minnesota, Congress, and the Supreme Court agree that it's a city's job to decide whether and how to organize trash hauling. To quote Chief Justice John Roberts in a 2007 opinion, "Congress itself has recognized local government’s vital role in waste management, making clear that 'collection and disposal of solid wastes should continue to be primarily the function of State, regional, and local agencies'" (citing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976). The State of Minnesota has granted cities specific authority through the organized collection statute. Since cities have that authority, and this is a republic, the "WHO should decide" question is obviously determined by elections.

We should certainly discuss whether we should organize, and if so how to do it, but to assert that organizing is out of bounds because it violates an inalienable "economic right" is simply a libertarian fantasy.


Organized Collection and Public Health

In my ranking of the proposed goals for organized collection, I suggested that reducing diesel exhaust in our residential neighborhoods should be included among the environmental benefits we sought.

Diesel exhaust is bad for us. According to the EPA,
Acute exposure to diesel exhaust may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, some neurological effects such as lightheadedness. Acute exposure may also elicit a cough or nausea as well as exacerbate asthma. Chronic exposure in experimental animal inhalation studies have shown a range of dose dependent lung inflammation and cellular changes in the lung and there are also diesel exhaust immunological effects. Based upon human and laboratory studies, there is considerable evidence that diesel exhaust is a likely carcinogen.

Anyone who has inhaled a lungful of diesel fumes from a truck accelerating in front of you on the highway surely has an intuitive sense of it being bad for the lungs. But the ultra-fine particulates in diesel are also linked to cardiovascular problems, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke. (Here's an example of one study: "Why Diesel Particulates Cause Cardiovascular Disease.")

Diesel vehicles are an essential part of our economy, and that's not going to change any time soon. But all else being equal, if we can reduce the number of large diesel trucks on our streets (especially our residential streets), that's a good thing. Multiple garbage trucks driving the very same pickup routes certainly qualify.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 07, 2011

Major Progress on Fish Creek

Last Monday's council meeting, February 28th, had a couple of agenda items representing major progress on Fish Creek. First was a grant application that required a public hearing. We did get some comment from the public, and it was all in favor of conservation for Fish Creek.

Second was City Council approval of a joint powers agreement with Ramsey County and the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. This agreement lays out a strategy for acquisition of the former CoPar parcels, with monetary commitments from the county, the city, and the watershed district. Our city's contribution will come from the Park Acquisition Charge Fund. PAC fees, which are paid by developers, are limited to being spent on acquiring or developing new parks and park facilities in the city.

While the joint powers agreement and funding commitments are a huge step forward, there's still a gap between those funds and the purchase price for the property, even though (thanks to real estate values going in the tank) the current asking price is far lower than it was when we first began to seriously look at acquiring some or all of it for conservation. My hope is that between the local funding commitments and the relatively small size of the gap, it will be easier to find or more more ways to fill it.


Hauler Displacement and Competition

State law requires a city to evaluate any proposed organized collection method in terms of "minimizing displacement of collectors."

We are part of a large and diverse metropolitan area where most cities have open hauling. The status quo is a system where, at least in theory, haulers need to continually prove themselves to their customers in order to win their continuing business. Any given hauler could lose all their business in Maplewood due to consumer choice; and a hauler that does not successfully compete for a portion of Maplewood's business has many other opportunities in other cities nearby. Haulers and trash industry representatives who have testified to the city council at meetings so far have emphasized the importance they place on competition, and their eagerness to continue to engage in it.

Thus, I conclude that one way to "minimize displacement of collectors" is to preserve and enhance the role of competition in any organized collection scheme. An organized collection plan should include a robust competitive bidding process, with contracts having limited terms (perhaps three years, to pick a number for example) and a process that opens the bidding to all qualified parties when those contracts expire. This will give current and future haulers a continuing opportunity to win business in the City of Maplewood.

As haulers today compete for each household, in the future we should facilitate their competing for entire neighborhoods at once.

As it happens, it has also been found that bidding-type organized collection schemes, as opposed to negotiated contracts, result in lower prices. For example, a 1993 report from the Minnnesota Attorney General's Office found that "communities [with organized collection] that continued relationships with local haulers were paying between 17.6 and 48.5 percent more than communities that had competitively selected haulers.” So the competitive bidding approach also serves my top goal, which is to save residents money on trash hauling immediately and into the future.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Fire Changes in the Review

Last week the Maplewood Review took a look at the changes coming to Maplewood's Fire Department.  The change in the staffing model (switching the paid-on-call firefighters to part-time employees working specific shifts) begins this month.

Labels: ,

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Ranking the Goals

If we approve a resolution of intent and begin developing a plan for organized trash collection, it is important for the city council to set goals that such a plan should try to achieve. If it can't meet those goals better than the current open system, we shouldn't adopt it.

In the packet for our last council meeting, city staff gave us the goals that our Environmental & Natural Resources Commission came up with. Staff added three things that the organized collection statute will require us to consider when we ultimately make findings on an organization plan, whether to approve or reject it. The list is as follows:

(If the document viewer doesn't work for you, try this direct link.)

Here is how I rank the goals, with some added comments and clarifications.

1. Economic - This is my top goal: primarily the direct cost savings to residents, secondarily the long-term savings to the taxpayers in terms of reduced wear on city infrastructure.

2. Environmental - In addition to the ENRC's bullet points, I would specifically add the reduction in diesel exhaust in residential neighborhoods, due to the well established links between diesel particulates and both lung and cardiovascular health problems.

3. Service - Organization would allow us to standardize service to all residents, including allowing us to make sure that there are ultra-low-volume options and a rate structure that rewards waste reduction. It would also allow us to confirm that we are in compliance with the Waste Management Act (Minnesota Statutes 115A.941), which requires that we "ensure that every residential household and business in the city or town has solid waste collection service. To comply with this section, a city or town may organize collection, provide collection, or require by ordinance that every household and business has a contract for collection services. An ordinance adopted under this section must provide for enforcement."

4. Safety - Reduce the number of large, slow-moving vehicles on our residential streets.

5. Aesthetics - Reducing noise and traffic are good, and might be included under the Environmental and Safety goals. I don't particularly care about the "consistent look" part of it. It's fine with me if people have trash cans that are different color or shapes, or if not all the trucks look the same. I'd be inclined to drop "Aesthetics" as a goal in itself and just include its elements under Environment and Safety.

As I explained at Monday's meeting, I do not include "Planning Process" or "Efficiency" on my list of goals. Efficiency, I believe, is an essential part of the the other goals, in particular the Economic and Environmental goals. I don't think "Planning Process" is actually a goal, but a means to the goals. To me, it doesn't make sense for one of our stated goals to be "achieve our stated goals."

8. Hauler Impacts - last place. All else being equal, minimizing disruption to the status quo is to be preferred, but I don't want to be in the corporate welfare business.


Friday, March 04, 2011

Maplewood Mall Makeover

Tuesday's Star Tribune includes an article about the upcoming facelift for the Maplewood Mall.  Seeing businesses reinvest in their property is a very good sign for the local economy, and also for our tax base.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Public Hearing Date Set

At Monday night's council meeting, we voted 4-1 (Koppen was the dissenting vote) to call a public hearing for March 28th to hear public comment before considering a resolution of intent to organize trash collection.

If that resolution passes, the city will attempt to develop an organized collection plan, working with any of the city's licensed haulers who are willing to participate in the planning process.  (I know of two haulers that have already notified the city that they are officially neutral on the question of whether or not the city should organize, and will be happy to work with us on developing a plan if the resolution passes.)  When there is a specific plan before us, the council will be able to evaluate its merits (making findings as required by statute) and vote on whether or not to adopt it.

If you forget to mark your calendar right away, don't worry — I'm sure you'll get at least one mailing from the trash haulers' trade association to remind you before the date arrives.


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

In Memory

Last week's Maplewood Review has a fine article remembering Dr. Marlene Palkovich.  Marlene was an extraordinary woman, and a blessing on Maplewood and those of us who were fortunate enough to know her.

Labels: ,

Newer Posts Older Posts

Posts by Date

Powered by Blogger & Blogger Templates. Customized by Michelle Nephew.
Contact me at