Some Annapolis residents, officials concerned by mayor's trash plan

March 28, 2012

Annapolis residents and some city officials are voicing concerns about a proposal by Mayor Joshua J. Cohen to reduce trash collection to once a week and cut the size of the city's sanitation workforce as part of his $95.4 million budget proposal.

Under the plan, the city would continue to provide waste removal through the Department of Public Works but would scale back some services and eliminate six positions, mostly through attrition. The mayor said the annual household fee would drop by $48 to $378 annually — an 11 percent savings.

The mayor's proposal represents a less controversial option than one endorsed recently by a city panel, which recommended turning over the city's trash collection to a private contractor. The system recommended by the panel would result in an estimated savings of $13 million over six years.

"I think it's a reasonable and prudent move to see what we can do more efficiently by still maintaining the flexibility we need by keeping it in-house," said Cohen, a Democrat. He called his plan a "good compromise" that "maintains the best value for taxpayers."

"One of the most fundamental municipal services is public works, and the city government does not exist to turn a profit. We exist to provide public services," he said.

Currently, the city operates trash collection with 21 employees and outsources recycling collection to a private company. A system fully run by the city would cost $2.92 million, and a system fully run by a contractor would cost $1.91 million, according to city estimates.

Sherod L. Earle III, an Annapolis resident, expressed concern that the city would cut back on trash service. "I'd rather pay the little bit of extra money. The city people, if a piece of trash falls, they pick it up. They're good at their trade. The quality makes up for the little bit of money we pay."

Alderman Ross H. Arnett, III, a Ward 8 Democrat, said the mayor's plan "shows a callous disregard" for the city's taxpayers.

"The mayor isn't doing it because he's scared of displacing some workers," said Arnett. "I told him I would support creative redeployment of as many staff as possible. … He could have done the right thing. The message he's sending now, loud and clear, is we're going to keep operating in an inefficient way because the money coming out of your pockets isn't important to us."

Cohen called Arnett's criticism "silly" and pointed out that two years ago, he laid off 33 city employees to balance the budget. The city's finances, Cohen said, are in much better shape now with projections of a third year of a surplus. The city is spending $4.5 million less on personnel than it did the previous year, said Cohen.

"We're no longer in the budget situation where we have to throw 20 people out of work to balance the budget," said Cohen. "This is a responsible and prudent step to get as many efficiencies out of our current operation instead of immediately 'making a 180,' which would be very hard to pull back from if it wasn't working out."

Alderman Kenneth A. Kirby said that the mayor "is on the right track," but he would prefer to see no job reductions.

"You never want to lay off anybody," said Kirby, a Democrat. "Our guys know the 83-year-old ladies on their routes. They know when there's snow, these ladies may not have put out their trash on the curb. They take the extra five steps and get the trash. A privatized service isn't going to do that. These guys know the people. People are looking at strictly dollars and cents — not looking at the value we have.

"Trash service is a core city service," said Kirby. "The citizens of Annapolis don't want to drive up the unemployment rate. If the city turns over its operations to a contractor, 20 men who have dedicated decades of their lives now won't be able to put food on their tables."

The mayor's plan would change the garbage collection route structures and require some employees to work more hours. The city would stop using vacuums for leaf collection and instead collect bags of leaves and provide bulk collection on demand instead of quarterly.

Arnett also criticized city officials for creating a panel and issuing a request for proposals from contractors, only to decide to continue with the same system. He said Cohen's plan had taken ideas from the proposals of contractors who bid on the job.

"By pulling the rug out from underneath this process, how many people do you think are going to bid next time?" said Arnett. "They're going to say, 'The city isn't serious. All the city's going to do is steal our intellectual property.' "

Sandra Solomon, an Annapolis resident, told city officials she opposes the recommendation on outsourcing. But she also doesn't want to see the city's sanitation staff cut. "Last year, these same people were given a 5 percent pay reduction. They're doing a good job. Let's stop fooling around with people's lives."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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