Trash deals discussed

December 06, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County will dole out $15.6 million to its 49 privat trash haulers this year on nothing more than a handshake and a promise that they'll do the job.

There are no written contracts and no competitive bidding. The haulers serve at the whim of the county executive, making their routes some of Maryland's choicest political plums.

It's a system that dates from the 19th century, when farmers were paid to collect their neighbors' refuse and dispose of it themselves. The hogs got the slops, the paper and glass were recycled, the ashes were saved for coating dirt roads, and farm workers were kept employed year round.

And it works, according to county officials who claim they get few complaints and good service at bargain-basement rates.

But the system's age, informality and openness to political tinkering make elected officials nervous every generation or so.

Last week, the County Council fretted anew, reopening a seemingly endless discussion about whether trash collection should be the subject of competitive bids, and whether the council should vote on each collector's deal.

The county pays its 49 trash haulers sums from $124,000 to $640,000 a year to pick up refuse from its 280,000 homes and apartments.

The smallest hauler has one route containing only 2,124 homes; the largest have several routes with up to 12,000 homes.

Haulers get a flat yearly fee per house. There's no formula for determining the rate, other than the rate for that house in years past.

The payment varies from a low of $46.75 per house in densely populated Arbutus to a high of $69.49 on rural, north county routes near the Pennsylvania line.

The rates increase whenever county workers get cost-of-living increases.

They haven't gone up since Jan. 1, 1991, when county workers got their last raise -- 4 percent.

Last week, councilmen debated whether they should vote on trash hauling agreements, because the county charter requires that all contracts above $25,000 be approved by the council.

Not an issue, according to an opinion from the county office of law.

Since there's nothing in writing and nothing to be signed by the county executive, there's nothing to vote on.

The council members also seemed unwilling to cut themselves in on the political patronage -- and contributions from haulers that have flowed freely to various county executives over the years.

If the council begins approving the trash agreements, Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley cautioned, "They [haulers] might think we want contributions too."

Others, including Pikesville's Melvin G. Mintz, wondered how minority contractors can get routes without any public, written policy for awarding them.

In the end, as in the past, the council decided to do nothing -- other than ask County Executive Roger B. Hayden for a `f statement of policy. In essence, they decided it wasn't worth fixing something that isn't broken.

"In my two years in office, I haven't had one complaint [about trash]," Dundalk Councilman Donald C. Mason said.

There have been efforts to change the system before, largely by replacing dozens of small, mom-and-pop haulers with one or two countywide operators.

Spiro T. Agnew announced plans to create a new countywide collection system when he became county executive in 1962. He began the experiment by giving some friends a couple of routes on the east end. They went out of business, leaving the county with a couple of abandoned trucks full of rotting garbage parked in a Dundalk lot.

In March 1977, reform executive Theodore G. Venetoulis announced that county trash routes would soon be awarded by competitive bids. It never happened.

The trash haulers, some of whom are the second and third generations of their families in the business, say it never will. "We give more of a personal service," said Clay Stambough Jr., 48, whose father began collecting county trash in the 1940s. "I'm out there every day."

County sanitation chief Charles K. Weiss has heard the questions before. He and others say the arrangement with a large number of haulers gives the county more power over its haulers.

If one gets out of line or falls down on the job, he can be replaced -- no questions asked.

But Mr. Weiss said the county never fires a hauler for political reasons -- even when administrations change.

They're generally fired only for cause, he said, which can range from not showing up to mixing commercial trash with residential to avoid paying dumping fees.

He said that of the larger jurisdictions, Baltimore County has the second-lowest cost per house for trash collection, though he cautioned that differences in size, geography and collection systems can affect the figures.

The average cost per home in Baltimore County, he said, is $53.94, compared to $50.45 in Howard, $55.38 in Anne Arundel, $69.36 in Montgomery and $124.07 in Prince George's County.

Baltimore City, which does its own trash collection, spent $11.7 million collecting from its 233,000 homes last year, according to a Sanitation Department spokeswoman.

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