Monday, March 26, 2007

Battle of the Trash Talkers

Councilman Buckwalter has posted a presentation by J. P. Mascaro, Inc. See Mascaro's Q&A.

I think that some of Mascaro’s points are well taken; others less so.

My thoughts:

Low Bidder – Yes, Mascaro was the low bidder. It was also the high bidder. It was the only bidder. When there’s only one bid, do you have confidence in the bidding process?

Fixed Price for Five Years
– A legitimate point.

Containers per Collection
– Whether the limit is ten (Mascaro) or five (Borough) is probably more of a theoretical than a practical concern for most trash customers. What is much more of a concern is that under the suggested PAYT system, the pricing is established based on an estimate of TWO bags per week. Therefore, anyone who disposes of the present weekly limit of five containers will be paying 2.5 times as much in weekly charges.

Bulk items
– Included (Masacaro), separate–fee and by appointment (Borough). A legitimate difference to consider.

Yard Waste
– Six per year (Mascaro) versus two (Borough). Another legitimate difference. Of course, you can track down the Borough’s conveniently parked trucks and engage in DIY disposal.

– Fixed price (Mascaro) versus probably increasing price (Borough) must be considered. But, Mascaro’s annual price of $1.388 million is a big (about 90%) uptick from the $730K they charged in 2004. Also, the $574K annual price of the 1999–2001 contract went to $730K in the 2002–2004 contract, a 27% increase. To be fair, we should expect a larger step up at the end of a multi-year fixed price deal.

Liability and Workers’ Compensation
– These are both just insurance cost issues. Obviously the insurance costs go away if we use a contractor. Environmental liability is probably not as clear-cut.

Equipment Costs and Availability
– A larger fleet operation should be more easily able to provide substitute collection trucks without disruption.

Transition Issues
– If the Borough goes to a contractor, disposal of the present equipment is an issue. Employment of the present sanitation staff is also an issue: we might be looking at unemployment compensation claims.

Share your thoughts as comments or with your Council Member.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

If it looks like a duck ...

The web site at has the Borough seal and the Borough letterhead. The domain name is registered to the Borough.

But, the site's webmaster tells us in his special note and several postings that it's "unofficial" and that he runs it as a favor, that he sort of just posts whatever he gets, and that he takes his directions from Borough Council Members and other people whom he does not identify. This is all part of his explanation for what's on (or not on) the site.

OK. If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's.... a mongoose?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Just a Minute?

The official Phoenixville web site posts Council minutes, but for some reason the latest is for October 2006.

See for yourself at the Borough's Minutes Page.

Since Council has met since then and since the minutes already exist in electronic form, would it be that hard to post them? Or are there other reasons?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“Talking Trash”

The cost of trash collection service to the Borough is what the Borough pays for it, not what the customers pay through either periodic fees or per-bag charges.

If the Borough uses its own personnel and equipment, that cost is presumably what is reflected in the 2007 approved budget. That amount, before the “allocation of expenses” (i.e., overhead spread from other departments) is $1.26 million.

If the Borough were, for example, to contract with Mascaro, on the basis of a fixed fee per residence per month, the cost to the Borough would be the number of residences times the monthly rate.

Unless the trash hauler is paid strictly per bag, the per-bag PAYT method does not affect the overall cost to the Borough. PAYT is nothing more than a billing mechanism for recovering the real cost. If the real cost is less than the PAYT receipts, there’s a ‘profit’; if it’s less, the difference must come from tax revenues.

The Borough’s hope is that PAYT causes residents to recycle more and, generally, be less trashy. This is certainly a worthy objective. The question is whether PAYT is the way to achieve it.

Using the Borough’s own trash collection, there is very little that changes when recycling is increased and other trash volume is reduced. Reduced trash volume would reduce tipping fees, but they are $319K, only 25% of the basic sanitation department expense. Realistically, how much can we expect the trash tonnage to diminish. Remember, by the way, the PAYT method is based on volume, not weight. Has anyone heard of trash compactors?

If you cut trash tonnage by 25% (just a SWAG figure), the reduction would be about $80K, or about 6% of the total.

The other factor is the ‘recycling grant,’ which is budgeted at $69K. This is income from the state, which obviously reduces the net cost to the Borough (though not to the overall public). How much of this is attributable to the effect of PAYT is not clear. Then there’s an estimated $36K of receipts for recycled waste. Again, how much of that depends on PAYT isn’t stated. Since we already recycle to some extent, presumably both these revenue items would exist in some amount, even under the current per-residence system.

Then there’s the cost of the bags, which is estimated at $70K. Seems to wash the grant, doesn’t it?

The additional cost of administering and enforcing the PAYT scheme isn’t clear either. And the ability of the Borough to capably administer and enforce is yet another question.

If trash collection costs are a concern, maybe we should look harder at where the costs really are. There a nine full-time, two part-time, and one temporary employee in the budget. The full-time personnel account for about 90% of the basic wage cost of $427K and, since the other personnel receive few benefits, virtually all of the benefits cost. The wages and social security for the full-timers are about $389K. Add to that $113K for health insurance and $51K for vision and prescription coverage (average $18,200 annually per employee), and you get $553K. Yes, $553K annual personnel cost for a nine-person staff.

To validate PAYT, our public works department now suggests a trial, using volunteers. Of course, public works has no agenda (other than that of the Borough Manager) and the volunteers are, by definition, self-selected. A good way to assure an unbiased trial.

It’s a pleasure ‘talking trash’ with you.