On Bloomington and Garbage

Our new home city of Bloomington, MN currently uses a mostly open market approach to garbage collection. This works great. The haulers understand economics because they actually have to run a business and pay people. This makes them efficient and incentivizes new ideas. I get to price haulers against each other and use somebody else if I’m unhappy. Markets at work.

The city council has decided this will not do and has been “investigating” a change to city managed garbage collection. It’s a forgone conclusion the council will decide that their idea for a government monopoly will bring peace to our time and good will toward men. Probably in the very near future because I have already seen city labeled trash bins in our parks and to avoid a recent petition initiative. This utopia is, of course, impossible, but I need to write out why it’s a stupid idea so I can get it out of my head and move on.

As an aside let me get off my chest that I’m pissed off I need to spend time on this at all. It’s garbage. It’s a solved problem. Who wants to deal with that all over again? But NO. Something must be done!

And before the venting starts in earnest let me send sincere thanks to the council members whom I have communicated with personally and in email. I very much appreciate their willingness to spend time on their constituents even if I think the majority are telling themselves some seriously imaginative stories. Thanks especially to Councilwoman Bemis Abrams, the sole dissenting member in all of this.

I also still believe individual Bloomington city workers are doing the best possible in a tough situation. If it’s unclear below replace “the city” with “the city council” because those are the people clearly deciding we are all getting in this hand basket and where we are going.

Now onto politics.

I’m going to wade through this by responding to the nine issues called out in the information packet offered at the open house on April 23rd.

  1. Reduce truck noise and litter
  2. Improve safety
  3. Improve recycling, composting and waste reduction
  4. Lower environmental impacts
  5. Enhance public education and awareness
  6. Improve value of services
  7. Minimize City staff resources devoted to solid waste administration
  8. Promote local economic development
  9. Reduce road wear impacts

There’s been a lot of city propaganda but most of it falls into these blurry categories in some tenuous way or another. I will note the list above buries the lede quite a bit and the informational packet that boldly lists these in the first page provided no actual information with respect to these bullet points.

The issue of the day will change depending on the audience and the day. Classic politics. I’ll just go in the order above.

Reduce Truck Noise and Litter

Litter is a red herring. Of course we all want to reduce litter! Who hauls our garbage won’t change how much falls out of the trucks one bit but it sure sounds nice.

Reducing truck noise makes some sense but there’s background here the city doesn’t want you to think about.

See, the last time the city council thought this was the greatest idea since sliced bread they got hammered by public opinion and backed off. (What has changed since then nobody seems to know.) But politics being politics they still got a ratchet locked down and required all garbage trucks to run in zones on specific days. So all the trucks are in the same part of the city on the same day. They’re concentrated by city ordinance.

Low and behold citizens noticed the higher truck density. Especially as Bloomington residents aged and more were home during the day. Thus the bitching and moaning about all those trucks. Nice setup city council of old. Well played.

So, sure, less truck noise. OK. Next up FedEx, UPS, DHL and the post office trucks. Those bastards have been terrorizing our neighborhoods for decades.

Improve (Public) Safety

This is such a clichéd appeal to fear I’m surprised (not really) they’re still flogging it. When will “for the children” get taken out for a spin?

There has been zero, no, evidence offered to support the idea garbage trucks are a public safety issue. When asked, the city could not provide one example of a garbage truck accident much less serious injury or fatality. With that kind of record these guys should be given Metro Area Transit jobs or start driving city vehicles. The buses, trains and city trucks do get in accidents fairly regularly so let’s give the garbage drivers a chance.

Improve Recycling, Composting and Waste Reduction

There’s no data to back up this claim either but, again, it sure sounds nice.

We’re already recycling because it makes sense. It means getting by with a smaller, cheaper, garbage bin. The city can’t change the economics of recycling so there’s nowhere to save on that one.

That the city claims anything about composting shows they haven’t really thought about this. The people that do this already do it for free in their back yards. Adding curbside composing costs extra in the city’s proposal so who is going to sign up for that?

And how is government going to reduce waste exactly? (Insert joke about $500 hammers here.) The dirty secret is the only way for this to happen is for the city to control collection so they can set the rules we all have to follow. Once they have the control they can start shrinking bin sizes until they meet whatever waste stream size limit they make up out of thin air. It’s classic environmental cover pushing us along the path to this weird better place where we’re freezing in the dark instead of killing the Earth with our furnaces or wasting electricity on a light bulb. Why are we still believing this stuff?

Lower Environmental Impacts

This is another hand wavy, no data, feel good bullet point. I’m evil because I don’t want to save the environment. Whatever.

When was the last time you saw government reduce anything? Me either.

Enhance Public Education and Awareness

The city doesn’t need to take over garbage collection to make progress on this one. So let’s charitably call it tinsel on the political Christmas tree this whole issue has become and move on.

Improve Value of Services

Again, when has a government service ever done this? DMV? Public housing? Health care? Transportation? Do you realize what that light rail is costing you? Improved value on anything? Ever? Government ran a whore house in Nevada and lost money for crying out loud.

But let’s use this one as an example of not just the claims with no supporting data mentioned above (with more below) but outright lies about “data” used to promote all this.

The city spent (we don’t know how much) money on (we don’t know how many) collection consultants. One of the consultant ideas was a survey. This survey is the only piece of data I’ve ever heard of in this entire fiasco. That survey asked about rates people were paying and, I believe, whether the city should look at taking over collection. I just moved here so I never got a chance to fill it out.

It had 276 respondents.

Bloomington has approximately 26 thousand households. Never mind the biased sample of who responds to a survey asking if the city should take over collection. Never mind the question begging that is part of every survey, as opposed to statistically valid sample methodology, ever. This sample size represents 1%. One. Percent. Across three different garbage bin sizes, seven haulers, with options for yard waste and compost, across nobody knows how many different household sizes.

This is not data, this is narrative crafting. And it’s being used to claim millions, MILLIONS!, will be saved. The mayor doubled down on this stupidity in the recent (state required) public hearing (where I’ll guarantee nothing was actually heard) by admitting the survey wasn’t statistically valid but that he’s sure the numbers will match up when the take over is complete.

Uh huh.

In the real world it took me 20 minutes when we moved here to find a rate 25% lower than the city used months to negotiate. And I hate talking on the phone.

So another example where government comes to the rescue of those too lazy to pick up the damned phone and save themselves a few bucks by taking it out of my pocket instead. Great way to promote a strong civic culture there guys. Can’t wait to see what that line of thinking does for the city over the next generation.

Oh, and yard waste and compost will still be additional fees but they don’t know how much or how that will work yet. Top. Men. How much have we spent just getting to this point again?

Minimize City Staff Resources Devoted to Solid Waste Administration

What the? Seriously? What the hell?

Reduce staff resources from where to what? The city hours being burned to investigate and manage consultants and “negotiate” with haulers and watch the city council naval gaze over this issue?

We’re talking about adding new government responsibilities. City staff will be expected to actually do the organizing part of organized city collection right? Something they are not responsible for today?

What the hell world do these people live in where new responsibilities accountable to 26,0000 households results in less work?

Promote Local Economic Development

Here’s another one what I just have to shrug my shoulders on. The hypocrisy here is obvious right?

The city council has taken seven successful businesses, employing local workers doing a difficult job, to the woodshed and made them offers they can’t refuse. (Nice business you have there. Shame if anything would happen to it.) The proposed setup says each hauler will keep their market share which is a nice way of saying their business growth potential is zero. On top of that these businesses and local jobs will suffer some level of chaos and losses as the city, hopefully, learns and makes, inevitable, mistakes during this transition.

This is the exact opposite of promoting local economic development. If I was a small business owner I wouldn’t touch Bloomington with a 10 foot pole. Who’s next on the city’s chopping block?

Reduce Road Wear Impacts

The city has admitted it has no data on this one either and, at the same time, doesn’t hesitate to claim the savings will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. So they don’t know and are just throwing more political tinsel on the tree.

I’ll admit that, yes, the bigger the truck the more wear it produces on road ways. I have my own engineering degree and my roommates were a couple of civil engineering majors. This level of physics isn’t rocket science.

The fact we’re not supposed to remember is that those smelly garbage trucks pay (big) registration taxes, fuel taxes and (big) licensing fees just like you and I do. This money is supposed to go toward road maintenance. The haulers are already paying their fair share. Like you and me they have every right to drive their trucks to Home Depot, McDonalds and to drop their kids off at school if they want to. Would it be OK for the city to tell you how often you can drive your car, truck, SUV, mini van or motorcycle? No. It would not be OK.

But it’s somehow OK to tell the garbage haulers because those trucks smell or something?

The city is admitting, but doesn’t want you to notice, that the government program for road maintenance isn’t working while claiming this government garbage collection program is totally different and is absolutely going to be awesome.

In Conclusion

I’m disappointed in my city’s council which has long term repercussions for my interactions with my government.

Instead of incremental, data based, changes to well defined problems they’ve created a staggeringly massive all or nothing political problem out of thin air. They are ham handedly taking over responsibility for seven local businesses, an unknown number of area jobs and the decision making power of 26,000 households all for the fleeting and emotional power of “doing something” and leaving their mark.

I don’t think that mark will last and, if it does, it’ll feel like graffiti in few years.

At best my family will pay more for the same great level of service we receive from our current hauler. I expect we’ll pay more for worse service very soon; the city will be the customer to keep happy, not us. And we’ve seen how well the city responds to citizens concerns on this issue already. Over time the city will have to make real world decisions about costs and services. As a monopoly the inevitable result will be less and less service for more and more money.

“We’re from the government and we’re here to help” shouldn’t make the hair on the back of my neck stand up but it surely does. I didn’t need yet another example…