What is so controversial about putting garbage pickup service in Hillsborough County out for competitive bid? At a workshop this month, county commissioners seemed to look for ways to make the issue more complicated than it is. While the business has changed, garbage collection is a straightforward operation; commissioners need to simply figure out what level of service the county wants and can afford. Residents stand to get the best deal by having all capable haulers compete for the job.
Three companies serve the 254,000 households in unincorporated Hillsborough. The garbage contracts were last sent to competitive bidding in 1996. It is reasonable to give these companies contracts over several years; they need time to recoup their initial investment in trucks, personnel and heavy equipment. But by the time the existing contracts expire in 2013, Hillsborough will have gone 17 years without opening its trash collection to competition. That's too long. And ratepayers have been denied the advantage of technologies that have made the business safer, more cost-effective and easier on the environment.
At a workshop this month, commissioners discussed whether to renegotiate with the current providers or open the contracts to some degree of competition. This is an easy call. The existing providers have no incentive to cut rates or improve service if the county all but guarantees another seven-year extension of their virtual monopolies. Commission chair Al Higginbotham is right that a competitive process is the only way for the county to secure a fair deal. There is plenty of work for three or more providers. And the county could write the bids to ensure that all haulers have the capital, manpower, equipment and service record to adequately perform the task.
It is disappointing that some commissioners are looking to short-circuit competitive bids. Commissioner Victor Crist should drop his bizarre idea of using new contractors as little more than stalking horses in a scheme to extend the contracts of the current providers. Either commissioners support the free market or they don't. As with all major contracts, there are means of weighing costs against other measures, such as performance and reliability. If open bidding does not improve service, cut costs or attract other players into the market, the county can renew the contracts of its existing providers. The county has nothing to lose from inviting competition, and nothing much to gain from prolonging this debate. Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Mark Sharpe seem to be on Higginbotham's side. The remaining commissioners, too, need to realize what's best for the ratepayers over the long term.