Essential Services

AT A RECENT SOLID WASTE CONFERENCE in New York state, a lawyer for a solid waste authority argued that garbage and recycling are essential services that shouldn't have to compete for “scarce” public funds. By insulating them from the give and take of politics, solid waste authorities could freely experiment with public dollars and flourish on their own. Water, sewers and the New York State Thruway were other examples he gave of “essential” services.

I was startled by his list of essential services. My own list would include garbage and recycling, water and sewers along with police and fire protection, parks, libraries, and road maintenance. As I was thinking about his list, I wondered what he would do if his house caught on fire? Since he doesn't consider fire protection to be essential, would he call the local water department and ask them to send a truck of water to put out the fire?

The technocratic desire to elude democracy is not new. Three decades ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised local governments to establish solid waste authorities that could plan facilities free from political pressures. That way, the authority could concentrate on its job without the distraction of seeking taxpayer money every year to finance its operations and having to deal with pesky politicians and voters.

Ironically, in another presentation at the same conference, a university professor gave the results of a study comparing the effectiveness of political bodies and appointed solid waste authorities in siting solid waste facilities. According to the researcher, the staff at the authorities had a better professional understanding of how to manage garbage, but they weren't nearly as successful at siting facilities. The politicians lacked the professional expertise, but they could site facilities. Why? Because the authorities' insulation from politics ensured that they were not politically astute. Politicians run for elective office every two or four years, so they are closely attuned to what the public wants. More importantly, they understand the need for compromise to resolve differences. Maybe politicians deserve a little more respect than we give them.

Competing for “scarce” resources can be annoying. But when tax revenues are tight, as in a recession, why shouldn't solid waste services face the same budget pressures as police, education or libraries? Any good manager knows that priorities must be made for competing uses of funds. By protecting some departments, such as garbage, from cuts, other services, such as police and fire protection, will be left fighting over a smaller pool of money. Competition for funds will keep managers on their toes and ensure that they deliver the best, most efficient services.

Local governments, like businesses, have to look at ways to save money when times are tight. They can cut services, lay off employees, raise taxes or privatize to make ends meet. But they have to make hard political decisions, and they have to be able to defend those decisions.

Is solid waste an essential service? Absolutely. But it's not the only one. Like all services, it works best when it has to compete instead of being insulated from politics.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

The columnist is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.