So many questions, not enough answers.
That sums up the Wichita City Council's wide-ranging and animated discussion Tuesday about a proposed trash-hauling cooperative.
City Manager Robert Layton said he will resume talks with trash haulers next week to answer questions, including how complaints about service would be handled, how the city would deal with delinquent accounts and what criteria would be used for future rate increases.
Once those issues are resolved, Layton plans to present the idea at district advisory board meetings citywide, most likely in January. That pushes a public hearing and City Council vote on the matter into at least mid-January.
"I don't want to go back to the public until we resolve those issues," Layton said.
The basics of the proposal are simple:
Everyone in the city would have weekly trash service, bi-weekly curbside recycling and annual bulk waste pickup. The $20-per-month fee would show up on city water bills, and the city would get 5 percent of that as an administrative fee.
Trash-hauling companies would keep the same number of customers as now, and each company would be assigned a specific part of the city near its existing customer base.
The discounted price agreements that some neighborhood associations now have with trash haulers would be honored until they expire.
The cooperative would continue to provide premium services, such as alley pickup and backyard retrieval that many seniors use.
City law already requires that each household have trash service.
But many details are unknown. Among the questions:
* Who would consumers complain to? The cooperative or the city? And who would ensure the complaints are addressed? If the complaints aren't addressed, what are the consequences?
* How would delinquent payments be handled? Since the $20 trash bill would be included with monthly water bills, would the city stop trash service if it receives only a partial payment? And what type of illegal dumping issues could that lead to? Would there be reduced prices or special payment plans for low-income residents?
* The proposed agreement locks in the $20 monthly rate for three years. But what criteria would be used to determine new rates once the initial agreement expires?
The purpose of Tuesday's meeting was to discuss basic issues and for council members to tell Layton whether to move forward with a detailed plan.
Layton said the agreement could reduce illegal dumping throughout the city, provide a simple way to recycle for everyone, eliminate redundant trash truck traffic on streets, keep all haulers in business and lock prices in for years at a time.
Could customers do better?
Council members, many of whom have gone through contentious trash proposals in the past, had a flurry of questions and opinions.
Council member Paul Gray said he chooses not to recycle and pays less than $20 a month. He's skeptical that fewer garbage trucks on residential streets would noticeably reduce street deterioration.
"No one seems to be happy about this," he said.
Gray questioned why customers can't do better than $20 per month if there is so much efficiency involved in the proposed cooperative.
Layton said preliminary data shows customers in 80 percent of the city will pay what they are paying now or less. He said most of the other 20 percent probably have deals between their homeowners association and the hauling companies. Those agreements will be honored until they expire.
Jim Spencer, vice president of Waste Connections, said the city could probably get lower rates with traditional franchise agreements where companies bid on zones or the entire city.
But haulers have fought that idea for years because it would put some companies out of business, and some haulers say companies that control transfer stations have an unfair advantage.
Adding to bureaucracy?
Council member Sue Schlapp said the biggest issue for her is, "What freedom am I gaining from this?"
She said she liked to be able to choose a hauler.
"I think we're giving away a huge amount of control over something in our lives that we have to have. And I guess I just don't feel it's the job of government to do that."
Schlapp and others said people already have problems getting someone to answer the phone in the city's water department.
"I don't see that adding to the bureaucracy helps the problem," she said.
Layton said the proposal is an agreement between private haulers and the city, minimizing City Hall's role.
"It's not heavily regulated government service or one that's provided by us," he said. "The only thing we're providing is the billing."
He said the city plans to greatly improve customer service next year through a new service center.
Schlapp and Gray said they have heard overwhelmingly negative responses to the plan.
But council member Janet Miller said that she has had positive responses and that people have been asking for citywide recycling and better service for years.
She said the annual bulk waste pickup, where haulers would take away large items such as appliances and couches, will save the city money it spends cleaning up illegal dumping sites.
Miller also said fewer trucks on redundant routes will cut down on pollution at a time when the city is likely facing expensive penalties for exceeding air quality standards.
"There is only a finite amount of space on Earth to bury stuff," she said. "At some point there's not going to be any more room to bury stuff."