Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Towns agree to force haulers to use RWS

Published in the Current and the American Journal; co-written with Josh Williamson

Area communities have begun following Portland’s lead in requiring private waste haulers to agree, in binding contracts, to bring the waste they collect to Regional Waste Systems, a move even proponents consider just a temporary fix for the incinerator’s budget woes.

Since Portland first hammered out the contract model earlier this spring, Gorham, Windham and South Portland have each adopted nearly identical ordinances and contract requirements in recent weeks. Gorham and Windham officials teamed together when negotiating with hauling companies over the past three weeks and are requiring identical contracts in order for haulers to get permits in those communities.

“We have to give a lot of credit to Portland in this,” said Windham Town Manager Tony Plante. “They put a lot of work and time into this, and we just had to tweak it a little bit to fit our specific situations.”

The ordinance is in response to a decision by RWS to cover a budget shortfall by charging member towns fees if they don’t deliver set amounts of trash to RWS’ incinerator each year. Rather than pass the fees along to residents, the communities have chosen to force haulers to go to RWS, which is more expensive than nearby competitors.

The Maine Energy Recovery Company in Biddeford charges roughly $78 per ton, compared to $88 at RWS, and there is a facility in Auburn that charges $55 per ton.

In South Portland, the majority of both haulers and city councilors agreed to the measure, but called it an imperfect and short-term solution they were not truly comfortable with.

“We see this as a temporary measure for the next couple of years,” City Manager Jeffrey Jordan told councilors before they approved the ordinance. In 2005 RWS may be able to refinance some of its debt and improve its financial situation, Jordan said. The city’s proposal fills “a two-year gap to buy us time to plan for the future of RWS,” he said.

Jordan said most haulers will sign the agreement. Filomena Troiano, owner of Troiano Waste Services, told the council she would do so because “this is just short-term.”

“I still don’t believe it’s right” for the council to tell haulers where to take their trash, she said. She is also “a little skeptical” about RWS’ ability to become competitive, she said.

South Portland councilors expressed dissatisfaction with the situation, but said it would start to address the issue. Councilor-at-large Robert Fickett opposed the ordinance in the vote, saying it was unconstitutionally imposing flow control.

John Papi, owner of Pine State Disposal, told councilors he would not sign such an agreement. “I don’t think it’s a fair deal,” he said. “It’s flow control. It’s unconstitutional.”

In an interview, Papi complained that each town was charging fees for haulers, and simultaneously requiring them to pay more to dump trash. Gorham charges $1,400, Portland $500 and Standish $200 for hauling permits, he said.

Papi questioned the ability of city officials to enforce the ordinance. “Are they going to follow everyone around at 3 o’clock in the morning?” he asked. He said many people ignore city ordinances, including leash laws and pooper-scooper regulations.

“What are they going to do – put me in jail for picking up trash?” Papi asked.

In Windham, however, enforcing the ordinance and making sure haulers have permits and are taking their trash to RWS will become a priority for police and other officials, Plante warned.

“This does put the obligation on the communities to enforce the rules,” Plante said. “Let this be a message. If there are haulers doing business without licenses, we are going to find them and enforce the ordinance.”

Gorham Town Manager David Cole, who along with Plante met with haulers two weeks ago, said it was an advantage to both the towns and the haulers for the two communities to present a united front in negotiations. He said it saved the haulers the time of meeting twice over the same proposal, and gave the towns a little leverage.

Both the Windham and Gorham town councils have begun approving the identical contracts with each hauler individually. The Gorham Council had authorized Cole to look into creating a “franchise” system, where the town would reach a contract with just one hauling company to pick up all the trash, putting the contract out to bid among the haulers. The haulers’ willingness to sign the contracts made this unnecessary, however, he said.

“If we have haulers who are willing to be cooperative, then this will solve the problems, and solve it more quickly than the franchise option,” Cole said. “I think if we end up going the route of franchising, it effectively limits our options in the future. It’s awfully hard to go back and try a different route once you franchise.”