Wednesday's public hearing on whether Hillsborough County should put its garbage collection contracts out to bid promises to be a real dog-and-pony show. The incumbent providers can be expected to pack the house with residents flush with alarm about service disruptions. Companies wanting a piece of the business will be promising the moon — and at cheaper rates. The only way county commissioners can make a sound decision is by putting the contracts to competitive bid.
Competitive bids will give the county an opportunity to vet competing claims over price and service. Hillsborough has not put these contracts out to bid since 1996, and much has changed since then in the way garbage collection companies operate. New equipment and vehicles, economies of scale and more efficient business methods have all helped to drive down the price of trash collection in many communities. Commissioners owe it to the 254,000 households in Hillsborough to see if the same benefits could be realized here.
Hillsborough has protected this regulated monopoly for too long. It is reasonable to give these companies long contracts given the time it takes to recoup their investment in personnel and equipment. But by the time the current contracts expire in 2013, the county will have gone 17 years without shopping for a better price. It is hard to imagine any business or family doing the same.
Commissioners holding out over service concerns should drop this flimsy excuse. Service levels are part of every garbage collection contract, and they are enforced in every community. Any bid would certainly factor in service and work history along with price. The county might be able to lower costs and improve service simultaneously. That's the whole point of testing the market through competition.
The county staff should push strongly for open bids. And it should shut down the noxious idea to negotiate privately with these companies, an invitation to bid-rigging. Give the market a chance; if competitors cannot beat the current deal, fine. The county can renew (again) with its incumbent providers and instill public confidence in the rates by having performed its due diligence. Once every couple decades is not too much to ask.