There is only one way to know whether Hillsborough County residents are paying a fair price for garbage collection: Put the contracts out to bid. That hasn't happened since 1996, despite improvements that have made the operation more efficient and affordable and more convenient for the customers. The county clearly needs to balance price with service, reliability and other considerations. But that's what comes from competitive bidding.
Residents in unincorporated Hillsborough pay about $20 a month for garbage pickup, less than the $25 monthly charge for city of Tampa residents. But a direct comparison is apples and oranges, as the cost for pickup between communities can vary according to population density, service levels and other factors. Still, open bidding in one county presents contractors with a level playing field. The county can determine service levels: What trash will be collected? How many times a week? And what about recycling? The garbage companies could then compete on prices, service and their work histories.
Three companies serve Hillsborough now. A fourth that wants the business, Waste Pro, said competitive bidding could reduce rates and even improve garbage service. That remains to be seen. Competitive bids have reduced prices in areas, but the incumbent providers are right that reliability of service needs to be considered. Given that the current contracts do not expire until 2013, there is time to ensure continuity of service.
Still, the savings potential is significant. And the fairness issue is overriding in a county that has not entertained open bids for 15 years. The changes over that time in equipment, labor and technology have altered the economics of the garbage hauling business. By bidding the work, the county could examine whether the use of automated trucks, oversized garbage carts and other practices would lower prices. The county also could examine new pricing schedules that tie a customer's cost to how much and how often garbage is collected. It also is beyond time for the county to reconsider its policy of allowing the haulers to retain the value of any recyclable materials that they collect.
The incumbent providers are intent on keeping the business, and they have an interest in fanning concerns over service disruptions and an angry public backlash. New providers have an interest in downplaying the reliability issue. There may be some service disruptions, as occur in virtually every contract change. But the county's focus needs to be on the long term. It can fashion requirements for the bid that assure that only well-capitalized, experienced firms come to the table. Given the costs of starting up garbage service, these are not contracts the county should change every few years. But renegotiating with the current providers is not enough. The county should open up the bidding process and search in good faith for a better deal.