'Big decision': Albany City Commission to take up issue of privatizing garbage collection

Concrete Enterprises began picking up garbage west of Slappey Boulevard in October. On Tuesday, the Albany City Commission will discuss turning over collection on the east side of the city to the company.

ALBANY — When it comes to garbage collection, Albany is a city divided, with a private firm responsible for the west side and city workers making pickups to the east, with Slappey Boulevard serving as the dividing line.

Faced with nearly $300,000 in costs to modernize, the city of Albany is looking at getting out of the garbage business entirely and letting a private vendor, Concrete Enterprises, acquire the route now handled by Public Works Department employees.

While the change would save money now and is estimated to reduce future costs, when the Albany City Commission takes up the issue on Tuesday there are sure to be some questions. The topic is on the agenda that day for discussion and could come up for a vote on March 23.

“My first thought is this is one of the core services the city provides,” Mayor Bo Dorough said.

The idea to allow the private contractor to take over collection east of Slappey Boulevard was raised initially during a meeting of the Albany Utility Board on Feb. 25.

At the time, the board was considering the purchase of six new trucks at a cost of nearly $1.1 million. The city has estimated that, in order to provide the same benefit as Concrete Enterprises using city staff, the city would need to invest a total of about $2.77 million in new equipment and training.

“The existing contractor can supply the same level of benefit to the entire city with no additional up-front cost to the city and at the same monthly rates currently charged per account,” an analysis performed by city staff stated. “Annual net income is estimated to be slightly higher with the contractor performing these services for the city, while at the same time greatly reducing the city’s risk and exposure associated with these types of operations.”

Dorough, who chairs the Utility Board, voted against the recommendation in February, with three members voting for approval and one member abstaining.

The mayor said he is concerned that the city could be vulnerable in the future if a private contractor’s performance proves to be inadequate.

“If we get to the position in three years or four years where we re-evaluate the contract, we have no option of recovering the service if we have liquidated our equipment and employees,” he said. “We need to be able to mobilize in the event our contractor is nor performing satisfactorily.”

Dorough also is concerned that some 40 Solid Waste employees would be affected. When the city contracted with a provider for the west side, some of the workers were hired by the private company.

However, he said, city employees could lose benefits such as pension and health insurance.

“Then we have people who are uninsured or on Medicaid,” Dorough said. “These people have been dedicated city employees. We don’t need to eliminate their jobs.”

Concrete Enterprises, which began collection at about 11,000 households in October, has done a good job, Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington said. The company purchased equipment that includes waste containers with microchips that provide a record of when a truck makes a pickup at a particular address.

“They’re in the 21st century,” Warbington said. “For the city to get to that point, it would cost a lot of money. Do you want a company that focuses on that to do that and let the city move on to do other things they need to focus on?”

There are pros and cons on both sides, Warbington said, adding that he has not made up his mind. City staff has determined that employees who are employed in garbage collection can be moved to other vacant positions.

“I’ve started reading up on it, and it’s going to be a big decision for us,” Warbington said. “It’s not a clear-cut path in either direction. We’ve got some really outdated equipment, so now’s the time (to decide). Once you buy the equipment, you can’t stop because you’re committed.”

For Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard, it is an issue for him that the discussion came from the Utility Board and was not something initiated by the commission.

“My concern is it came out of the Utility Board,” Howard said. “When it came up to purchase six trucks for $1 million, someone said they should not purchase them but just give it to the contractor who has the west side.

“It should have been coming out of Public Works. That’s the expertise in solid waste.”

While initial reports are that the new company is doing a good job, Howard also said he would be hesitant to award a contract for the rest of the city based on five months of being on the job. Like Dorough, Howard said he is not aware of any disparity in service between the two sides of the city. “I’m of the opinion we should wait and see when the year’s up,” he said. “They were awarded the (five-year) contract based on a one-year trial period.”

Another issue is what would happen with the employees. “You’ve got some employees who have 10 or 15 years’ experience,” Howard said. “It’s coming to us for discussion. I have some questions and concerns.”

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