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Talking Trash: Memphis Union Holds Anti-Privatization Town Hall, But Fed-up Attendees Say "Privatize It"

Leonard Gilroy
May 26, 2010, 5:10pm

In an ironic twist of fate, a town hall meeting organized by a Memphis public employee union to stir up opposition to the privatization of city waste collection services ended up going in another direction. As myeyewitnessnews.com reports:

The Bluff City's garbage collectors are worried about their jobs getting outsourced to private companies. And they're hoping to get the citizens of Memphis on their side. But it's going to be a tough sell.

Frustrated Memphis taxpayers, fed up with what they describe as lousy service, trash-talked the sanitation crews during Tuesday night's meeting on May 25, 2010.

Tired of their garbage sitting at the curbs for weeks, sometimes even months, some Memphians say privatization doesn't sound like such a bad idea. "I pay your salary," Whitehaven resident Samantha Rajapakse told the handfull of sanitation employees in attendance. "That's the bottom line. When I tell you there's a problem, there's a problem!"

More from The Commercial Appeal:

Tuesday's meeting quickly turned into a chance for the public to complain about garbage pickups in their neighborhoods. A man who lives on Mosby Road said trash has sat on curbs more than 30 days, killing grass while calls to city supervisors went unheeded.

When [union vice president Rodriquez] Lobbins tried to explain that the city's Public Works Division assigns workloads and pickup schedules, the angry man who refused to identify himself stormed out of the meeting shouting, "Privatize it. Privatize it."

The next speaker, Samantha Rajapakse said, "I somewhat concur with that gentleman ... I pay your salaries, bottom line, and if you have a problem I don't want to hear it ... So I say privatize it."

[Mayor Mayor A C] Wharton's suggestion was that the union local form a corporation that would compete for sanitation services along with private companies. As an employee-owned business, it would give workers a stake in their jobs.

Mayor Wharton's interest in exploring managed competition for waste services makes sense. As I recently wrote here as part of our Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey project:

[...] more than half of all U.S. cities contract out all, or part of, their solid waste collection services. The many reasons for this include cost savings (competitive delivery of solid waste services typically generates cost savings on the order of 20 to 40 percent), enhanced risk management, efficiency or technology improvements, and debt reduction.

In the late 1970s, a looming fiscal crisis prompted the city of Phoenix, Arizona to apply competition to residential solid waste collection. The city's Public Works Department bids alongside private firms for the right to serve each of six geographic sectors, with collection services in each sector being put out to bid on a rotating schedule every seven years. Over the first 15 years of competition, the inflation adjusted costs of solid waste collection declined by 38 percent citywide. When combined with the cost savings from competitions for landfill operation and solid waste transfer hauling, Phoenix saved nearly $39 million competitively bidding for waste-related services.

Competition for solid waste collection services in Charlotte, North Carolina produced $14 million in cost savings over the first five years of the program. A 2004 statewide study of 15 North Carolina cities found that Charlotte consistently outperforms other cities in cost and efficiency for garbage, recyclables and yard waste collection. Charlotte's collection costs per ton for garbage were 45 percent less than the statewide average, while it spent 41 percent less per household to collect garbage.

For more on privatization in municipal waste services, see here and here.


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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