Putting transfer site in private hands raises more questions than answers

Garbage is a dirty business. Homer’s new transfer site, a $12 million or so project, has been privatized and will soon be operated by the lowest bidder.

I had been waiting to see the proposal for privatization to come forward as an ordinance on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly agenda so that I could testify to the assembly, since I have a few things to say on the matter. But, lo and behold, the mayor decided that it was not necessary to have any public hearing on this type of privatization action and moved forward administratively with soliciting bids for the operation of the transfer site and hauling of the waste to Soldotna.

Hauling around Homer has been done successfully by private operators for a long time, but the operations at the Homer site have always been a borough responsibility. According to a quote from the mayor, this privatization will save the borough $250,000 per year. That’s about $5 per person in the borough. I’m sure we’re all happy to save $5 a year, but how does one go about saving $250,000 in a year out of a major operation budget and still have a contractor making a profit?

My guess is that the formula will include lower wages, lower, if any, benefits, and a reduced number of staff at the site. I can’t help but think that this will lead to a lower level of service. How much of that $250,000 “savings” will be at the expense of local jobs? How will this loss of good jobs in turn affect the local economy? How will the privatization affect possibilities for potential future changes at the transfer site such as composting?

There is currently an ongoing borough-funded feasibility study looking at municipal composting. It’s due to be completed soon, but with a privatized operation it seems less likely that composting would move forward here even if recommended by the study. Will the private contractors promote recycling since there is no direct benefit either way for them? What long term considerations such as maintenance and repairs on the facility are factored in to the “savings”? How could a real number for savings even be arrived at without any baseline history about how much it will cost to operate the new facility effectively? It seems like the borough would need to operate it for a year to determine actual costs for comparison. Is the cost of monitoring and oversight of the contractor included in this accounting?

I don’t know the answers to these questions since there was no meaningful public discussion or presentation of the issue, or any of these details. I am disappointed in the mayor for moving privatization forward without bringing it out first as an ordinance to the assembly, or at least having a hearing in Homer to gauge the local preference.

I am concerned that Homer will be left with a lower level of service than we are accustomed to, will have less potential for progressive waste management solutions, and will take an economic and social hit as a result of this action.

If indeed these are the costs of the “savings” from privatization, then I would gladly give my $5 back. The proposal to privatize operations at an important and integral community facility should have been brought before the community to be affected. Instead, it has been dumped on us.

Dale Banks owns Loopy Lupine Distribution, a manufacturer of compostable paper coffee cups and wholesale distributor of food service, janitorial and business paper supplies. He sorts his waste and has lived in the greater service area of the Homer landfill for 20 years or so.