Privatizing Vancouver's garbage pickup deserves real debate

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

18 comments

garbage overflow.jpg
Privatizing garbage pickup can help to cut costs and reduce length of labour disputes

Two words rarely uttered by municipal politicians in Canada in public are “contracting out.”

The term describes the situation when work normally performed by unionized public servants is handed over to the private or not-for-profit sector to conduct. As a politician friend of mine once told me, if a service can be found in the Yellow Pages, you should ask yourself why it's being provided by the public sector.

In the case of our city governments, the list of services eligible for contracting out is immense. They include things like lawn cutting, road paving, garbage collection and snow clearing, just to name a few.

I’m no flaming privatization nut. I see that there are practical reasons why we want to keep public work done by public employees. But even I can see the advantages to a city’s bottom line by contracting out select services.

In Metro Vancouver, some cities are already jumping on the bandwagon by privatizing commercial and residential garbage pickup services. It’s probably the most highly visible and contentious item civic politicians can tackle in their quest to cut costs.out.

I came across an interesting YouTube video recently regarding the city of Sandy Springs, Georgia. Faced with ballooning tax hikes and poor services in a small but affluent unincorporated county, they decided to form their own local government.

Unlike many other American cities teetering on the verge of bankruptcy due to high public sector payrolls and pensions, this tiny community went down a radically different path. They essentially chose to contract out their government to the private sector.

Since 2008, their unique public-private partnership (P3) has allowed them to deliver superior services to their citizens at half the previous cost. They estimate that using a traditional model of governance, it would have cost local taxpayers $50 million to provide city services on an annual basis.

According to Sandy Springs officials, they only spent $25 million per year for equal or better services than before the P3 arrangement.

In the case of Vancouver, there has been no meaningful debate in council chambers to discuss how contracting out might improve services or reduce costs. Meanwhile, countless hours have been wasted talking about backyard chickens and multi-million-dollar dedicated bike lanes.

Despite the fact Vancouver is now entering a new round of labour negotiations, the discussion about privatizing services is simply not happening. Meanwhile in neighbouring communities like Surrey and Coquitlam, they’ve already begun to look to the private sector as a partner when it comes to trimming the cost of local government.

As cities grapple with lower revenues and the burden of rising costs, I believe it’s only a matter of time before a majority of voters demand their local politicians start getting creative.

It’s time for a serious dialogue about the pros and cons of contracting

UPDATE: Former BC Federation of Labour bigwig and now Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs has been put in charge of the labour negotiations with their unionized employees. It is anticipated they will hammer out a new labour agreement prior to the next civic election.

- Post by Daniel. Follow @CityCaucus on Twitter. Check out Daniel's civic affairs column every Thursday in 24 Hours Vancouver.

18 Comments

"As a politician friend of mine once told me, if a service can be found in the Yellow Pages, you should ask yourself why it's being provided by the public sector."

Likely because the private sector operates on a different set of imperatives than the public sector. Depending on the sort of company that gets the contract and where it is incorporated, private organizations may have an obligation to their shareholders to pay the lowest wages possible, in order to provide the maximum profit possible. That is, if they can hire garbagemen for the minimum wage, they will.

Besides, there's no private anything. Our money supply has been thoroughly socialized for so long that to even talk of "private" business that uses public credit as its medium of exchange is farcical. And if this talk is going on in the suburbs, all that speaks to is the quality of education of the suburban people.

Anyone who really wants to bust a costly union, end the drug war. We won't even need to privatize that once it's over because it's an extravagant expense. It costs _a lot_ to basically void the common law definition of larceny and give Constables a License to Rob.

So, anyone talking about busting labor unions before we bust up the cop union and its cushy drugwar, I cannot take you seriously. You're feeling the financial pinch, and rather than do a serious systemic analysis of waste, you'll pick on the smallest fish in the pond whom you feel "don't deserve" as much as they get. For shame.

And this is without analyzing the eugenic subtext to privatization---the private sector doesn't pay every employee a wage capable of sustaining a family, so guess who the privatizers think are unworthy to breed! Steriliation boards are a no-go, but inflation of degree-holder-wages and deflation of everyone else's wages will accomplish much the same trick, without the bothersome snip-snip that puts the small folk onto how they're being abused.

There is nothing to debate on this subject. Of course it should be contracted out. Way too many benefits not to.

I live in a condo unit which uses a private waste removal service.

It was a welcome relief during the last strike.

Contracting out makes sense on more than just a monetary level.

I understand why the public sector unions set their hair on fire any time the subject of private delivery of public services is raised. The mere discussion of privatization is perceived as a threat to the gravy train contracts they have worked so hard to secure.

What I don't understand is why the bleeding hearts line up behind them. Think about it. If the city spends less on things like garbage collection and filling pot holes, there will be more money for dealing with social problems. Same amount of tax dollars spent, more services received.

Have you ever seen how the pick is in Surrey. They suck and it's private. The recyling is all put into one old garbage truck mixed all together. The garbage collection that is done is also poor. The cans are left all over the place. I lived in Vancouver for 15 years and would take the Vancouver garabe collection over Surrey's any day.

the exempt staff saved the city during the last strike, without them there would have been a ridiculous amount of garbage everywhere...but I'm sure Mr. Meggs will solve that with a sure dose of PB, and I don't mean peanut butter.

There are many articles and studies that have been done on the subject (check the cities of Phoenix, Indianapolis and Toronto people) and it's time to start asking the questions in the lower mainland...why is it that a garbageman gets $60K a year to work 5 hours a day, will full benefits and 6-8 weeks of holidays? I'm sure that most Cities could have this service alone done for less than the current cost...I agree with Bill - more money in the coffers = more services to be provided.

Glory, Glory hallelujah, the union will march on...but hopefully for not much longer...

If anyone honsetly believes than while Mayor Meggs and Vision control City Council any services will be contacted out, I have some Ocean front property in Arizona for sale.
I will also predict any gains made by the City in Collective bargaining will all be eroded by Mayor Meggs and Vision

placing Meggs in charge of union negotiations is like asking Charlie Sheen to serve drinks at a high school dance.

Yeah, as a resident of Coquitlam you need to ask the populace how that whole privatization of the garbage service worked out!
Well it was absolute crap! Service was terrible and it ended up costing us more then the public service; so we lost out on great work that was done by the city employees, we ended up paying more, and our community looked worse.
Private does not mean better.
And now Coquitlam council has debated about going back to a public service.

The point is that it isn't a debate about private versus public but what is the most cost effective way of delivering public services and responsible stewardship would consider both models. Properly constructed contracts can provide certainty as to cost savings and specified service standards with financial penalties can safeguard quality. Organizations have contracted out more complex functions than garbage collection and have managed to maintain standards as well as enjoy cost savings.

Private does not always mean better but if the City does not consider private as an option, you are almost guaranteed to pay more. The Vancouver civic unions know Vision would never contract out something as big as garbage collection so what leverage does the city have in negotiating their contract.

Why is the debate only between the city doing the work, and contracting to someone else to do the work? That's just replacing one monopoly with another.

A much better solution would be to let companies sign up people for garbage collection. The way WasteTech and others do with condo buildings. The way we do with other utilities like phone, internet, gas, etc.

A company that has to compete for your business will do a much better job. And when you can compare your garbage collection with your neighbour's, you're in a much better position to decide if it's good or not.

The real issue is to stop thinking a single provider of anything, public or private, will do a good job.

The private companies do not want the garbage collection contract with the City. They want the control of the source. That would be our Transfer Station and the Landfill.
The fact is our crews are so efficient with the current mechanized system, the private companies cannot compete. It would take a sweatheart deal for the private companies to take over. Similar to the railroad deal. It would cost taxpayers more in the long run.
The revenue that we generate from our sources pays for many social programs.
Tens of millions of dollars. That cannot be privatized.

There is a lot of research that shows the private sector does a very bad job at providing public goods. The private sector tends to create as many externalities as possible to reduce its costs (a form of subsidy) and to cherry pick the most profitable pieces and leave the rest to the public. At the same time, the public sector does a poor job providing private goods - it does not provide enough alternatives, becomes inefficient, and misses many opportunities. So the debate should be as to whether what parts of waste disposal should be thought of as private goods and what parts as public goods. This is a moving target on which there is plenty of room for disagreement and on which different cities should try different approaches so that we can learn from each other.

If there are parts of the waste disposal system that should be private (I have no opinion on this yet) then @foo makes sense, we should have options and competition and not a new monopoly.

Excellent posting on contracting out and privatization... Take a look at what just happened in Abbotsford when they tried to privatize their new water system.... CUPE organized protesters who showed up en masse at council and shouted the plan down like a bunch of bullies... Where is the respect for taxpayers?

"There is a lot of research that shows the private sector does a very bad job at providing public goods"

Perhaps the public managers have to do a better job at managing contracts. Again, private sector companies contract out all sorts of functions much more complex than garbage collection and maintain quality and contain costs. There is competition to get the contract and it requires a competent management to sift through the various proposals to select the best supplier, design a contract to meet objectives and then monitor results.

Have you ever grabbed the yellow pages to find a handyman and discovered that the work he performed was sub-standard but bargain priced and when you tried to complain to him about the job, you discovered his company’s customer service department had been contracted out to voice mail jail.

I think your politician friend needs to have a more serious look at the simplistic notion that contracting out will save us all from ourselves and that our problems could be solved easily by just letting our fingers do the walking.

I’m no flaming left wing nutbar, and I’m sure you’re no Scott Walker fanboy, but when I look south of the border and even in my own backyard, I have to wonder where the “race to the bottom” will finally lead us. I had the opportunity to watch the video on youtube that made such an impression on you. Watching it, I could see that Sandy Springs, Georgia was a fairly upscale middle class suburb, as you had described. With a little checking, I learned it consists of mostly white residents with an average household income of 120,000/yr. It is probably a good place to be to escape some of the more challenging neighbourhoods and areas that downtown Atlanta is known for (zip code 30303 was recently listed as the 5th most dangerous zip code in America in 2010). Interesting too was my observation that the only people in the video who weren’t white were the “contracted” workers paving a new road and filling the potholes. I have a feeling they probably don’t reside in Sandy Springs, but instead find themselves on the other side of the tracks enjoying the benefits of low wages, no retirement benefits, expensive healthcare options and no union protection.

Yes, there are many ways to save money and balance the books. Negotiating with unions might be a start. But if you’re going to advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater, then at the very least you might want to advocate that those people who would be cutting the lawn in our city parks and collecting our garbage, at the very least make a living wage (which in Vancouver comes in at about 18.17 per hour). Of course my preference is to see problems like this solved at the negotiating table because some of these workers are my friends, neighbours and believe it or not they’re taxpayers too! It all boils down to this…. Everything in life has a cost. It’s just a matter of determining who ultimately will have to pay for it.

Hey - wanted to respond to your piece on privatizing trash collection. It's privatized out here in Surrey and it's a disaster. Would you believe some weeks we don't even get it collected!? No kidding.

It's either too snowy, too rainy or they forgot our street - those are the excuses when we phone city hall.

Also, countless times I've seen them run over neighbor's grass with their double rear tires and leave a complete mess - the city has to come out and fix it and of course that takes weeks.

They also 'wing' the lids and cans all over kingdom come. In North Van I see the trashmen place the cans upright with the lids on. Also we are volunteers for the bin in the city park and wheel it in front of our house. The trashmen refused to collect it for months saying it wasn't in their contract!

Then a city of Surrey guy would have to come in a city truck and get it. This nonsense went on for nearly the entire summer last year.

So that's just the other side of privatization.

Interesting J. My boyfriend lives in Surrey and his trash collection is like clock-work. No issues whatsoever.

We have private pick-up at the condo I live in and again, no issues.

We have from time to time had to contact the city as our recyling bins haven't been emptied but hey, good and bad in both private and public service.

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