Time for a trash-hauling overhaul?

March 10, 1993

The private trash-hauling system in Baltimore County is again drawing the attention of the County Council.

The system works well, by most measures. The 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.

Still, the council gets the feeling every decade or so that something is not quite right about a program in which the county's top elected official annually awards trash-hauling contracts -- worth $15.6 million this year -- to people who also happen to be big political contributors.

When a rare opening occurs among the nearly 50 haulers, the executive names someone to the route. No bid is put out, no formal contract drawn up. A handshake is often enough to seal the deal.

Certainly county auditor Stephen Kirchner smelled something fishy about the program when he questioned its legality in his report of last July. He wrote that county law requires individual contracts over $15,000 to be granted through a sealed-bid process, with all contracts in excess of $25,000 to be approved by the County Council. Hauler contracts range from $124,000 to $640,000.

This 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 Hayden staffers argue the county regulation is superseded by a state law enabling subdivisions to set their own disposal plans.

The Hayden 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.

Isn't that like the burglar's protest that he wasn't guilty of housebreaking because he entered by an unlocked door?

Concerns also have been raised about the system's effect on Mr. Hayden's recycling program. Unlike haulers in other subdivisions, the private haulers in Baltimore County pay no tipping fees at landfills. They are compensated on a per-house basis and thus have no incentive to bring less trash, recyclable or otherwise, to local dumps.

The Hayden administration has not been entirely receptive to council inquiries about the system. As the legislative body considers trash-hauling reforms that would be fair and would erase suggestions of political hijinks, the executive would do well to give his full cooperation.

Abuses might not be happening now, but the potential is there. That's reason enough for change.

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