It's a $17 million-a-year franchise built on cash, trash and trust.
It's Baltimore County's trash-hauling system, and it operates unlike any other in the region.
There's no competitive bidding. And in a county with a $1 billion budget, the trash collectors and county do business without written contracts, a vestige of days long gone by.
The county's 49 haulers, paid $17 million this budget year to remove trash and recyclable materials from nearly 300,000 homes, serve on a handshake -- and at the pleasure of the county executive, currently C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
At election time, haulers are among the biggest contributors to county executive campaigns. Ruppersberger is the latest to benefit from the largess, receiving at least $91,960 from haulers on the county payroll, campaign reports show.
The mix -- no bids, no contracts and big contributions -- troubles Deborah Povich, executive director of the public interest watchdog group Common Cause of Maryland.
"Unfortunately, a system without a competitive bid, without a written contract, leaves itself wide open for manipulation and abuse," Povich said.
"There really is a public protection in a competitive bid process. And they're shutting out potential new businesses," Povich said.
And she calls the steady flow of campaign contributions a form of "hidden political tax."
Still, there's no sign of change, and the county says for good reason. Public officials and haulers point to a county study showing the locality pays less to collect trash than do neighboring counties.
"You've heard the old saying: If it's not broken, don't fix it," said third-generation hauler Bill Ruppert, who owns Ruppert Sanitation Inc.
Though the system was tainted by allegations of cheating by some haulers in the early 1980s, county officials say reforms have long been in place. And they say trash and recyclable materials are picked up like clockwork.
"There are very, very few complaints," said Charles K. Weiss, chief of the county's bureau of solid waste management. "These families know if they're doing a good job, they get to keep the job. And if they don't, they won't."
Baltimore County's system dates to the 19th century, when farmers were paid to collect and dispose of their neighbors' refuse.
Today, many collectors are the children or grandchildren of haulers. The families can operate for decades, losing their routes only by choice or poor performance in the county's eyes.
"I grew up with it, and I've done it all my life," said William Gerber, whose late father began collecting trash in 1938 and whose son began in 1990. "There's a great continuity. The job always gets done."
Gerber and Ruppert say the system succeeds without the intricacies of contracts or bids.
"We've proven ourselves," said Ruppert. "If you have a big company in there, it can become a monopoly."
Others say change is overdue in a system that, mirroring county government as a whole, remains primarily white-owned. According to Weiss, four of the 49 companies are black-owned.
"It should be open to competitive bidding," said Robert F. Dashiell, a lawyer who said he has represented companies unable to crack the hauling business.
"Everybody else in the civilized world has relied upon the concept of competitive bidding," added Dashiell, a member of the county school board. "There has to be opportunity provided for everyone."
Other questions surface about the flow of campaign cash.
Collectors give to Democrats and Republicans, but mostly, they give to the politician in office.
In 1990, with Democrat Dennis F. Rasmussen seeking re-election as county executive, haulers donated at least $87,500 to his $1 million campaign. They gave just a few thousand dollars to Republican Roger B. Hayden.
Hayden pulled off an upset. And when he sought re-election in 1994, haulers donated at least $77,695 to him. They contributed to Democrat Ruppersberger, too, giving at least $38,760.
With Ruppersberger publicly declaring a re-election bid in 1998, the haulers continue to contribute. They have donated at least $53,200 since his victory, or nearly 10 percent of the $572,763 he has raised, records show.
"They probably think it's in their financial interest to contribute to whoever the sitting county executive is, and it may be," Povich said. "That's not the best design for democracy, though, when people doing business with the government feel they have to make a political contribution in order to remain viable.
"They basically are paying a hidden political tax."
Ruppersberger downplays the donations. "I don't really know which haulers have given to me and which haulers haven't given to me," he said.
Gerber, whose family contributed to all three executives, said the donations reflect nothing more than the industry's attempt to be politically involved.
"Most of [the haulers] are just working guys who are not the type of people to attend a lot of glad-hand functions," Gerber said. "And I think it's the only way they think they can be involved."