Lower trash bills, too

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton is on the right track with his trash-collection proposal, except for one key component: price.

Wichitans would still pay too much for trash collection — significantly more than what residents of area towns are paying for the same services.

Layton is proposing the formation of a trash haulers’ cooperative. Haulers in the cooperative would be allotted certain parts of the city to collect trash.

In addition to weekly trash pickup, all the haulers would provide curbside recycling and once-a-year bulky waste pickup — for a $20-a-month charge on Wichita water bills.

It has long made sense to reform Wichita’s trash-collection system, and good for Layton for tackling this problem.

Unlike most cities that either have municipal employees pick up trash or that franchise the collection with private companies, Wichita has homeowners and businesses contract directly with private haulers. Though that appeals to residents’ free-market instincts, the result is an inefficient, free-for-all system with high trash bills.

The reason for the high bills is simple. Most of the cost of trash collection is paying the salary of someone to collect it. And if one truck picks up trash at only two or three houses on a block, that’s less efficient and costs more than if the truck collects trash at every house along the street.

In addition, because there are more trash trucks lumbering through the same neighborhoods, there is more air pollution and more wear and tear on streets, which are higher costs to society.

Layton’s plan would help lower all those costs, which is good. Unfortunately, most of those savings would be kept by the trash companies, not by homeowners.

No wonder the haulers are so interested in this proposal.

Layton’s proposed $20-a-month charge is about what many homeowners already pay for trash services. By comparison, other towns around Wichita that franchise their trash pay at least 25 percent less than that.

Derby, for example, franchised its collections last year. Residents pay $14.75 per month, which includes curbside recycling. Given its financial bargaining power, Wichita ought to be able to negotiate an even lower rate.

Heck, homeowners in some neighborhood associations in Wichita pay much less than $20 per month. Under Layton’s plan, their lower prices would stay in place until their contract expires, then increase to the citywide rate.

Rather than raise those rates, the city should be lowering the rates for everyone.

Layton’s proposal seems aimed at winning support from the haulers, which have fought past discussions of franchising. Perhaps that is what it takes to change the dysfunctional status quo.

Still, Layton and the Wichita City Council shouldn’t negotiate away the main reason for changing the trash system: lower prices.

As proposed, homeowners would continue to throw away money along with their trash.