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Plan Could Reduce Customer Rates

Council nixes further pursuit of privatizing garbage service

Despite support from White Salmon's mayor and the director of the city's Public Works Department, the White Salmon City Council has rejected a proposal to pursue privatization of local garbage collection service.

During a long discussion at the May 7 council meeting, council members looked at a proposal from Bingen Garbage Service to take over customers within the White Salmon city limits.

Council member Tim Stone said the outline failed to answer many questions that he believed were critical for the council to have before they could make a decision.

However, Wil Keyser, director of the Public Works Department, said the proposal before the council simply would authorize the city to negotiate final details. Keyser said only when the details were finalized would the contract be brought back to the City Council for an up or down vote.

"We're asking tonight for approval for the mayor and staff to negotiate a franchise agreement," Keyser said. "All we have is an analysis, and we want to negotiate to put some numbers to the agreement to see if it is reasonable for us and see if it's what you [council members] want to do. When we have an agreement and all the details in it, then we would come to you to approve or reject the contract."

Mayor Roger Holen added that the purpose of the vote was to see if privatization of the city's garbage service was something the council wanted to consider.

"If not, we won't waste everybody's time," Holen said. "If as a matter of principle the city does not want to contract these services, I'm not going to waste staff time and the time of Bingen Garbage Service if it's not going to go anywhere."

The vote to reject further review of the Bingen Garbage Service (BGS) plan was 3-2. Councilors Francis Gaddis, Tim Stone, and Penny White Morris voted to terminate negotiating a plan, with Susan Benedict and Susan Gookin voting in support of pursuing the proposal.

After the vote, Bill Hearn, owner of BGS, said he didn't understand why the council rejected further negotiations.

"It caught me flat-footed. We offer such a broader range of service than what they have now," Hearn said. "We gave them a really excellent proposal."

Hearn pointed out that the city currently charges $9.50 per month to pick up one trash can a week, whereas Bingen Garbage Service would charge $8.25 for the same service. For two cans a week, the monthly charge by the city is $13. BGS would charge $12.25.

In addition, BGS would pay the city of White Salmon a $12,000 per year franchise fee for the rights to take over the service.

BGS, based in White Salmon, already serves about half of Klickitat County and all of Skamania County. The business employs nine workers and has eight garbage trucks.

Keyser said his analysis of the BGS proposal was positive.

"The service the city provides doesn't have the broad base they can provide," he said, "and they would pay the city a franchise fee."

Hearn, who lives in White Salmon, said he has been in the trash collection business in the local area since 1964.

"We never missed a pickup, with the exception of a couple years ago when we had that big freeze. Nobody could move for a few days in January," he said.

Jim Herman, a certified public accountant and a former member of the City Council, represented Hearn during the council meeting. Herman stressed that the city of White Salmon could be served more efficiently by BGS.

However, Stone said he was concerned about the fact the city would have to eliminate one of its Public Works Department employees if the privatization deal went through.

Keyser pointed out that Bingen Garbage Service had agreed to absorb that person into its company.

"They have agreed to take him on, but the wages and benefits still need to be ironed out," Keyser noted.

Stone added that he was reluctant to see the city give up its existing service.

"I have a major concern with losing control of this vital service," Stone said.

Keyser responded that the council would retain legislative control.

"Our ordinances will always prevail. The council will always have control, but day-to-day operations would be the business owner's call," Keyser said.

Keyser added that if the city did not move to privatization, the rates for the city's garbage customers would soon need to be raised. He said the increase would probably be 26 percent.

"We've had no rate increase for garbage service for four years, and one day inflation will catch up with you," Keyser explained. "There will need to be a rate hike by October or November, and the City Council will have to make a decision."

Herman appealed to the council to understand how much of an economic benefit privatizing the service could bring to White Salmon.

"You do realize the city would save about 42 percent of its costs for this service?" Herman said.

However, Councilor Gaddis questioned Herman's numbers.

"I do realize I've had all these figures looked at by another accountant. That's all I'll say. I just do not wish this department to be privatized," Gaddis said.

After the vote, two of the councilors said they might be willing to reconsider their decision.

"We may want to state some things we need to see happen, and if they can meet that, we'll reconsider," Stone said.

"At our next budget session let's look it over seriously and make a real clear decision as to what we need to do," added Morris.

"I think with a little more information and a little less micro-managing by some of the council members, there can be an appreciation for what this means for the ratepayers," Keyser said. "This is a glorious opportunity. I know it's hard to let go of what's familiar, but this is win-win. I'm not saying there wouldn't be a problem here and there, but providing the same or better level of service for 42 percent less seems too good to pass by."

Mayor Holen said he was frustrated with the council's decision to halt negotiations on a contract that could benefit both parties.

"The reality will be brought to bear when we look at the 2004 budget," Holen said. "The City Council needs to look, at that time, whether to raise fees or decrease service. This deal seems to be in the best interest of the people of White Salmon."

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