Ecker's Garbage Gambit

March 30, 1994

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker may have forfeited some of the leverage the county had in trying to hold down the cost of waste disposal into the next century.

By axing a proposed $5 million county transfer station, where waste could be loaded for destinations outside of Howard, Mr. Ecker has decided to turn this business over to the private sector. While there are strong arguments in Mr. Ecker's favor, his premature decision means that the value of a county-owned waste-transfer station may never be fully known.

There seem to be some equally good arguments in favor of a county facility -- or at least in holding out the possibility of one. A Howard waste-transfer station, proposed or real, might be just the leverage the county will need in negotiating favorable rates from a private hauler. The fact that Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's second largest hauler, seems willing to build a waste-transfer station in Howard -- regardless of whether the county builds its own -- is an indication of the bottom-line potential in such an enterprise.

Mr. Ecker has made it the cornerstone of his administration to turn over as much of the public's business to the private sector as possible. Privatization certainly has proved, in certain circumstances, a less expensive way of dispensing public services. But absent a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of a county-run transfer station, we are left wondering if Mr. Ecker made the right choice.

Howard County's waste-disposal problems seem to be building faster than the trash itself. The dollar costs of closing one landfill and cleaning up the contaminates leaking from three others are mounting into the millions.

The Ecker administration has a waste-management plan before the Howard County Council. But the executive's decision to remove the proposed funding for a waste-transfer station weakens the county's position from which to bargain with Browning-Ferris or any other private hauler.

Mr. Ecker's gambit, in the end, may prove to be the wise course. As he points out, Howard County still has the upper hand in choosing the private firm that will handle the county's trash. Also, the executive's decision does not preclude the possibility of the transfer-station proposal being revived in the future.

Still, gamblers know well the advantage of having all the chips stacked in your favor from the start.

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