Troubling Trash Policy

March 10, 1993

By most measures, the trash-hauling system in Baltimore County works well. The nearly 50 private haulers appointed by the county executive provide good service and draw few complaints from constituents. The cost per home in the county is one of the lowest among metropolitan subdivisions.

So why is it hard to shake the feeling that something smells about this whole set-up?

The County Council gets that feeling every so often, citing the seeming impropriety of the executive annually awarding informal contracts -- worth $15.6 million this year -- to people who also are political contributors. Spurred by a county auditor's report questioning the legality of the century-old system, the council is again considering ways to reform the trash-hauling arrangement.

Here's how it works: The executive appoints haulers when a rare opening occurs. No bid is put out, no formal contract drawn up. A handshake is often enough to seal the deal.

Yet, as auditor Stephen Kirchner wrote in his 1992 report, county law requires individual contracts over $15,000 to be granted through a sealed-bid process, with all contracts over $25,000 to be approved by the council. Hauler contracts range from $124,000 to $640,000.

Clearly the local law has been ignored by the administration of County Executive Roger Hayden and its predecessors. Hayden staffers argue the county regulation is superseded by a state law enabling subdivisions to set their own disposal policies. Funny how county officials, inveterate bashers of the state government, hide behind a state law when it suits their needs. The administration also makes the disingenuous, Catch-22 claim that the trash-hauling system isn't subject to bidding laws because no formal contracts are involved.

Additional concerns have been raised about the system's impact on Mr. Hayden's recycling program. Local trash haulers, unlike their counterparts in other subdivisions, pay no tipping fees at landfills. They're compensated on a per-house basis. Thus they have no incentive to bring less trash, recyclable or otherwise, to area dumps.

To date, Mr. Hayden has been less than forthcoming in his responses to council inquiries about the system. He would do well to cooperate fully with the legislative body as it attempts to craft a trash-hauling policy that is fair and lacks the slightest whiff of malodorous politics. Even if abuses aren't happening now, the potential for them is there. That's reason enough for reform.

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