Columbia Cuts Commercial Garbage Pickup

January 28, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA decision last year by Columbia City Council to shift the cost of a core local government function – commercial garbage service – to businesses is costing companies money, an expense that quite possibly is being passed on to their customers.

It also could end up forcing the city to defend the cost shifting in court.

How a legal fight over the matter could shake out is unclear. What is clear is that City Council’s decision to cut back on one of the city’s basic services and force the private sector to foot the bill for it raises serious questions about the seven-member elected body’s judgment – and fiscal management.

After all, this is a council that engaged in a pattern of drunken-sailor spending in the past several years on everything from local and regional marketing efforts to a defunct music festival to an aborted attempt to build a publicly funded hotel for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

The consequences of that irresponsible stewardship of tax dollars have crashed into City Hall in recent months, shaking the local government to its very foundation.

Commercial garbage service is just one example.

With the city hemorrhaging red ink from years of financial mismanagement at both the administrative and council levels, City Council voted unanimously in June to nix the service to save money.

The decision was implemented around the beginning of September when the city stopped emptying dumpsters and other bulk containers at commercial locations. The city still provides garbage service to businesses that use roll carts.

But the elimination of bulk container pickups has been a big blow to many companies, especially apartment complexes.

“It’s impacted pretty much all of the apartment industry as a whole,” says Chris Carter, president of the Apartment Association of Greater Columbia. The association has about 300 property and business members, he says.

Carter, manager of a large apartment complex downtown, says apartment complexes have been forced to turn to waste companies to provide the service, incurring an expense they did not anticipate.

In the case of Carter’s complex, he says it’s costing nearly $800 per month. “And of course eventually that gets passed back to the residents,” he says.

At Palmetto Terrace Apartments, a 112-unit complex on Howell Avenue off Harden Street in Columbia, the monthly bill is more than $700, according to John Carter, managing partner and majority owner of the property.

The monthly costs averaged over one year for the two complexes total almost $9,000 each. Multiply that by the 300 or so Apartment Association members and pretty soon you’re talking real money – some $2.7 million.

John Carter (no relation to Chris Carter) says he is flabbergasted that the city has nixed garbage service for one group of taxpayers while continuing to provide it to others. He says he is talking with an attorney about pursuing legal recourse against the city. “And we certainly intend to start some action, yes,” he says.

The city spent a little more than $1 million providing commercial trash collection last fiscal year, according to Robert Anderson, solid waste superintendent for the city. The city was not charging for it, Anderson says. “So therefore it didn’t cover the cost of it.”

Asked who recommended eliminating the service, he says, “You know, it was recommended just during the budget process (for this year).”

Responding to more questions, Anderson says there is no discussion among city officials about reinstating the service. In fact, he says the city is in the process of selling its front-end loader trucks it used to provide the service.

Chris Carter takes issue with the notion that the cost of the service was not being covered. “We paid for it as part of our taxes,” he says. And those taxes are commercial rate, which is higher than what residential taxpayers are assessed, he notes.

It bothers Chris Carter even more that the city exempted several condominiums from the change.

Anderson says the city is still servicing condo properties where more than 51 percent of the units are taxed at the owner-occupied rate of 4 percent.

How many is that?

Fewer than 12 to 15, he says.

Why?

“Condos were rated as not for profit,” Anderson says in an e-mail.

The city also had been servicing Columbia Housing Authority properties as part of its commercial service, but that ended with the cutback, too, Anderson says.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.