Wichita City Manager Robert Layton deserves credit for recognizing the glaring problems with the local free-market trash system — Wichitans pay too much and recycle too little — and trying to do something about them. But even a revised version of his cooperative proposal faces long odds.
Getting trash companies to agree isn’t enough. Local public opinion clearly favors freedom to choose a hauler over the promise of lower prices and easier recycling.
In November, Layton proposed a system in which haulers would collect trash in assigned parts of the city and provide curbside recycling and once-a-year bulky waste pickup — for which all residents would pay $20 a month via their Wichita water bills.
Trouble was, what would be a cheaper rate for some residents would be a hike for others, who understandably balked. According to an Eagle reader survey, the median monthly price that Wichitans pay for trash is $18.20. The prospect of City Hall picking the hauler for everybody and raising trash bills for some landed Layton’s idea in the Dumpster. At least 15 of the 22 primary candidates running for mayor and City Council are against Layton’s plan.
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According to an article by Brent D. Wistrom in Monday’s Eagle, Layton has been listening to concerns about his proposal and trying to come up with an alternate plan.
The possibilities include “pay-as-you-throw” rates, which would reward those who generate less trash with lower bills and provide an incentive to recycle — beyond the desire to be environmentally responsible.
But “pay-as-you-throw” could require haulers to buy new equipment. Plus, its cost benefits are artificial: Because most of the cost of trash collection is paying someone to drive the truck to the customer’s house, it matters little whether that customer’s cart holds 60 or 90 gallons, or is half full or overflowing.
Without full-fledged franchising, the city seemingly has little leverage over Waste Connections, which owns one of the two local transfer stations and also owns the Harper County landfill where most of Wichita’s trash ends up. Waste Connections has raised its transfer station tipping fees from $38 a ton in 2001 to $55 a ton now. And according to another local hauler, Waste Connections has refused to agree to a $18.75-a-month rate over the course of Layton’s negotiations.
Since Sedgwick County decided to shift to a privately owned transfer station system, cities within the county largely have had two choices: Franchise citywide with a specific hauler and negotiate good prices and services, or tolerate a costly free-for-all dominated by Waste Connections.
Now, with residents in other towns such as Valley Center paying as little as $12.95 a month through franchising, Wichitans arguably look like chumps for happily paying $20 or far more in the name of the free market. But most seem unmoved by the cheaper suburban rates, or by the potential benefits to streets, air quality and taxpayers under a one-hauler-per-neighborhood system. If Layton still expects to change the system, he’ll have to sell citizens as well as haulers on the benefits of change.