Fair Competition

ROCK HILL, S.C., PUBLIC OFFICIALS have a problem. Local businesses don't want to use the city's commercial collection service. They prefer to use less expensive — and apparently more efficient — private haulers instead. Desperate for an effective, competitive tool, city officials did the logical thing. They dedicated themselves to providing better service at a competitive rate. Well, actually, they proposed charging a fee to all businesses that choose not to use the city's service.

City officials claim they just want to “level the playing field,” but they are really trying to tilt the field in their direction. They are saying, “use us, or pay a fee that is equal to the cost of service while you are also paying a fee to another hauler.”

City officials justify the move on the grounds that garbage collection protects public health and safety. This is true enough. However, we have federal and state laws written specifically to ensure that garbage collection and disposal are operated in a manner that ensure public health and safety are protected. Vigorous enforcement of those laws protects the public health, not whether the public or private sector collects the trash. If the city is worried that some businesses won't want to hire a hauler, it can enact a proof-of-service ordinance that requires businesses to prove that they have a garbage collection service.

The real reason for the city's proposal is that Rock Hill is losing the garbage collecting business to private competitors. Simply put, it needs the money. In the past three years, the city has lost 350 commercial accounts to private competitors.

Ironically, one of the accounts the city lost was the local school district. According to the Charlotte Observer, Rock Hill school officials say that switching back to the city's collection service will cost taxpayers an extra $17,000 per year. If the city forces the school district to quit using its private hauler, school officials will have some unpleasant choices to make. Either they will have to raise taxes to pay for the extra garbage cost, or they will have to cut expenses in other areas. I wonder how many computers the school district can buy with $17,000? And taxpayers will be hit twice — first for the higher cost of collection and then for higher taxes for the school system to pay the higher cost.

Why does the city need the money? Because it uses profits from commercial collection to subsidize the cost of residential collection. Instead of charging its citizens the full cost of providing garbage service, the city low-balls the residential fee and charges its businesses (and the public schools) a higher price.

I have an idea. The city should dedicate itself to providing a cost-effective, environmentally protective collection service. Rock Hill should thoroughly study how it collects commercial trash, root out inefficiencies and drive down the cost. If city officials determine that they can't reduce costs, maybe they should gracefully exit the business and let the private sector do what many businesses (and the school district) want them to do: collect their garbage by offering a good service at a good price.

Many public sector hauling operations are run competitively by managers who are dedicated to providing good service at a good price. They don't need subsidies or funny money fees — their hard work levels the playing field. It's time for Rock Hill to shape up or ship out!

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of 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 Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.