Rarely does an Athens City Council meeting get as packed with concerned citizens as its meeting Tuesday evening.
The citizens – including current and former County Commissioners, a former state representative, and current candidates for City Council – attended to register their concerns about the city administration’s previously stated intent to award the city’s trash/recycling hauling contract to a new vendor.
However, that plan to award the contract was effectively cancelled after a realization that the bidding process had “failed,” city administrators said just prior to the public-comment period.
Even before the meeting started on the third floor of the Athens City Building, the room was filled to capacity, with people waiting in the hallway outside and watching a live-stream of the event, as well as over at The Pigskin Bar and Grille on North Court Street.
Roughly 50 people signed up to offer public comments on the trash/recycling contract.
Prior to that comment period, however, city Service-Safety Director Andy Stone read a memo listing the ways in which he and city officials now believe the bidding process has “failed” after their “extremely thorough review.”
“This recommendation stands in contrast to our position last week where we published an intent to award the contract to Waste Away, the lowest bidder, pending council approval,” Stone acknowledged.
He explained that the bid process failed because the city could not accept the bids from any of the companies who had submitted bids for the contract. They include the city’s current hauler, the nonprofit Athens Hocking Recycling Centers (who bid $1.501 million for a year of service with curbside composting included); private company Waste Away ($908,760 without composting included), from Licking County; and large private regional hauler Rumpke ($1.684 million with no composting).
Ron Lucas, the city’s deputy service-safety director, said last week that Waste Away Systems (a private company based in Heath, Ohio) had the lowest-cost and highest-scoring bid for the contract to provide all of the city’s residential and uptown district trash and recycling hauling services. The city administration already had informed Waste Away that it would be selected, pending Athens City Council approval.
This prompted a wave of outcry from area residents and others, and a massive showing of support for AHRC during the meeting Tuesday (multiple employees of AHRC attended the meeting in their bright yellow company shirts).
The reasons that Stone listed for the bid process’ failure included:
• Waste Away had submitted a “non-certified” company check for the bid guarantee. “This does not comply with the bid instructions or Ohio law,” Stone said.
• None of the three bidders is considered a “registered hauler” under Athens City Code 5.02.06. According to that code, “All persons collecting or transporting solid waste in the city of Athens shall have purchased a license or entered into a special district franchise agreement.” Stone said he wasn’t sure why AHRC wasn’t considered such a registered hauler despite it already providing services to the city for the last four years (he said it might have been an artifact from when that nonprofit was under the umbrella of the Athens-Hocking Solid Waste District).
• Rumpke’s bid could not be accepted because it was too high and would not be “economically feasible for the city to accept.”
Stone said he takes the blame for the bid process’ failure, though he noted that his staff worked hard for around five months on the bidding process.
“The responsibility for the failure of this bid process is mine alone, and I will own this problem,” Stone said. He promised that he’s committed to “redoubling” his effort to arrive at the best bid for the contract.
Still, he outlined the city administration’s recommendation for moving forward, which all Athens City Council members seemed to support. He said the city needs to rework its bid evaluation process, but doesn’t have enough time.
“We have come to a crucial point in that our current contract expires on June 30,” Stone said. “At such time, solid-waste collection will cease, and we will rapidly descend into a public-health emergency.”
Consequently, he recommended, City Council should approve a suspension of the bidding process and allow him to negotiate an extension of AHRC’s contract for a single year. He said his goal will be to rework the bidding process with council and others’ help over the next six months.
He added that the city’s solid-waste collection rates should be increased to account for continuing with the existing contract.
CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS weighed in after Stone spoke, and all seemed to endorse continuing AHRC’s contract for a year.
At-large council member Sarah Grace noted that if residents want their trash/recycling contract to support “good-paying jobs” and for the city to continue to support sustainable efforts, “we have to be willing to pay for those ideals.” She asked residents to reach out to City Council to let them know about that support.
At-large council member Patrick McGee, however, questioned the costs of continuing with AHRC, and expressed concerns about increasing prices for residents for trash and recycling.
“If we’re talking about 7 or 14 dollars more a month or more for somebody who is a very low-income person or a minimum-wage person… that adds up to a lot over a year,” McGee said. “In addition, we’ve raised water rates and the (Athens City) School Board now has raised… rates for people, so I hear on a regular basis how people are being priced out of Athens.”
At-large council member Pete Kotses said he “never realized that people love” their trash/recycling haulers so much, prompting some laughter in the room. He noted that he’s heard many stories bout AHRC going “above and beyond.”
Council member Chris Fahl said the city’s bidding process needs to keep in mind the “three-legged stool” model of sustainability, which balances environmental, social and economic impacts.
“When I was looking at the evaluation system… I saw that we need to look at the balancing and weight of the different scores… At the end there’s a lot of really good questions and requirements for the bid but at the very end it’s like, whoever does the cheapest amount gets a super amount of points, and that means that you are going to that bottom line again,” she said.
Fahl was referencing the city’s bid evaluation process, which presented a list of 19 scores for each company on how they’d help the city achieve various goals (which added up to 50 percent of the total score) compared with a score based on the total dollar amount of the bid (which was another 50 percent of the total score). AHRC on average scored higher than the other companies on the technical portion of the evaluation, but lost out on the financial aspect of the scoring process.
Although many applauded after Stone finished speaking and thanked the city for taking the step to rework the bidding process, dozens of residents still spoke out during the meeting about how they believed the process was “flawed,” with every single public comment arguing that AHRC is the best choice for the city. Many also argued that AHRC – which has 37 employees, 32 of whom are union members – would go out of business if it lost the city’s hauling contract (the city is about 40 percent of the work AHRC does; it also collects refuse outside of the city, in both Athens and Hocking counties).
Debbie Phillips, Athens County’s former state representative and Rural Action’s current CEO, predicted that the implications of any loss of AHRC would be far-reaching. Nearly all of the employees are Athens County residents, and they spend their money here, Phillips said.
She added that Rural Action and its partners, including the Ohio University Foundation’s Sugar Bush Foundation, have leveraged over $1.5 million to help grow a “zero-waste economy” in the region, and they and other partners along with AHRC have invested millions of dollars in recycling infrastructure at AHRC and in the region.
As a result of that investment, AHRC has built a materials recovery facility (MRF) and created an organics collection and composting facility in addition to other infrastructure improvements, which all dovetail with the city of Athens, Ohio University and other community agencies’ sustainability goals. Additionally, she said, that has translated into Athens and Hocking counties’ landfill diversion rate increasing from roughly 9 percent in 2009 to almost 25 percent now.
“We’re concerned about the potential loss of millions of dollars of investment made in this region toward our recycling goals,” Phillips said.
Hylie Voss, president of the Sugar Bush Foundation, noted that Athens County had the third-lowest recycling rate in the state in 2010. Now, conversely, Athens and Hocking counties have some of the lowest rates of “waste generation” in the state, thanks to AHRC and other efforts in the region.
Crissa Cummings, an office assistant with AHRC, was visibly upset as she spoke about the pall that fell over her workplace when the city notified AHRC last week that it would not be getting the city’s contract. The letter made it seem like it was a “done deal,” she said, and she and others began panicking, not aware that City Council still needed to approve the contract.
“I go home to tell my partner, whom I provide health insurance for both us for – and it’s my first stable job that I’ve had since moving back 11 years ago – that I’m going to be losing my job probably by the end of June,” she said. “I go in Tuesday morning, and supervisory staff are having a meeting that is focused on which trucks we’re going to be selling first… and which staff are going to be laid off in the first round of layoffs.”
Ted Linscott, an Athens Township trustee and president of the Southeast Ohio AFL–CIO Council, along with others during the meeting warned that the loss of AHRC’s contract would mean the loss of decent-paying union jobs.
“Ask what the rate of pay is (of potential contractors),” Linscott suggested. “You have that right to ask. Ask, do you provide health insurance to your people, what kind of health insurance is it?”
Bruce Underwood, executive director of AHRC, said that his organization’s bid was higher than Waste Away’s because it was 100 percent accurate, based on “years of experience” in the community, the quality of its services provided, and the investment AHRC has made in its facilities. He and others questioned Waste Away’s ability to provide the level of services needed to fulfill the city’s hauling contract.
Andrew Ladd, recycling and zero-waste manager with Ohio University, who spoke during the meeting in his capacity as a resident rather than in his official role, said that Waste Away’s proposal was “not a realistic bid.”
“I don’t think you’re really comparing a realistic, responsible best bid of approximately $1 million with the next bid for approximately $1.4 million,” Ladd said, echoing Underwood’s point that AHRC’s bid was based on the realities of hauling in Athens.
County Commissioner Chris Chmiel, a former board member of the Athens-Hocking Solid Waste District, noted that the city and university wanted single-stream recycling, so he and others worked hard to make the MRF possible, which required a lot of investment. He did say, however, that the city should critically examine its trash/recycling policies, and added that the city could do a lot better than the roughly 25 percent diversion rate.
“Landlords and all kinds of people come uptown and shove stuff in (the dumpsters) there; that’s a huge burden on the pricing,” he said
Athens City Council at-large candidate Ellie Hamrick, who defines herself as a socialist, said that any savings to the city if it had gone with Waste Away would have come “off the backs of the working class.” She argued that the low bid means Waste Away likely isn’t paying its workers a livable wage.
She said that regardless, AHRC’s workers should make more than the “$10 to $13 an hour” they make now
“If that means the city has to pay a little more, so be it; there’s plenty that can be cut from unnecessary and oppressive policing,” she said.
Underwood said in a brief response Wednesday morning that AHRC has multiple job classifications, and the minimum wage a part-time worker can earn is $10 an hour, but said the pay rate increases with experience and depending on the job, pays up to $17, $18 and $19 an hour. AHRC spends a significant amount on providing a good benefits package, one that mirrors the benefits that county and city employees receive, he added.
Athens mayoral candidate Damon Krane, an independent, said that the bidding situation represents a “monumental failure” on the part of city leadership.
“If I understand Service-Safety Director Stone correctly, here’s what happened: the city administration tried to take the refuse/recycling contract away from a local, nonprofit union provider with a realistic cost assessment, and award that contract to a non-local, for-profit, non-union provider with an unrealistic cost assessment,” Krane said.
Krane argued that the city administration should not be applauded for “botching” the entire bidding process. He added that Athens City Council passed a “responsible bidding” resolution in 2008 that was not followed in this situation.
Editor’s note: There’s no practical way we could have covered every single person’s comment during this meeting, so we recommend anyone who is interested in learning more to watch the City Council meeting online by going to https://www.ci.athens.oh.us/90/City-Council.