Layton is on right track on trash

Best wishes to City Manager Robert Layton on his efforts to bring trash franchising to Wichita and, in turn, bring down the needlessly high rates paid by residents and businesses.

Last week Layton told the Wichita Republican Pachyderm Club that the City Council soon may take up a trash-franchising system that would help set basic levels of service, divide the city into zones, use a co-op of haulers to decide which companies are assigned to which areas, and guarantee an area to every hauler currently in business.

That sounds like the city would try to go out of its way to keep the haulers engaged and operating as it moved to franchising.

But Layton may be underestimating mighty Waste Connections, which has the most Wichita customers and controls the tipping fees both at its transfer station at 4300 W. 37th St. North and at its Harper County landfill — and therefore has the most to lose in a switch to franchising.

As Waste Connections officials have pointed out, the company has invested millions of dollars in the current system based on its current market share. It may be willing to go to court to try to protect that investment.

This free-for-fall market, made worse by Sedgwick County's 1997 decision to go to a privately owned transfer station system, means Wichita residents pay far more for trash service than many of their franchised suburban neighbors — two or even three times more. When Derby switches to franchising in December, for example, residents will pay $12.75 or $14.75 a month (including recycling), compared with $21-$27 currently.

Some Wichita City Council members and other residents like the current system for its choice and don't see the rates as unreasonable. And not all of them are: Some homeowners associations, for example, have been able to negotiate lower rates for themselves.

But competition hasn't worked to keep rates low for most people in Wichita. The current system has been an embarrassing bust when it comes to promoting recycling and reducing Wichita's trash volume overall.

A franchised system has the added benefit of cutting down on the number of trucks causing wear and tear on city streets, reducing their polluting emissions in the process.

Lower rates also could deter illegal dumping, which costs the city $600,000 to $1 million a year and contributes to neighborhood blight.

As he makes a run at trash franchising, Layton has common sense on his side. But that is not the same thing as having the City Council votes.

Layton is also likely to face stiff resistance from some of the trash haulers, which currently act as if they own Wichita's trash system because they do.