The West Hollywood City Council gave its blessing Monday to a proposal to extend for 15 years Athens Services‘s exclusive right to pick up and dispose of the city’s trash without soliciting bids from competitors.
As proposed, the contract would require Athens to meet certain requirements for diverting a percentage of the city’s trash from landfills by recycling it or composting it in each of three five-year periods. The city would have the option of not continuing the contract if Athens did not meet those and other requirements.
While they supported the proposal, several council members also asked that other provisions be included in the final contract that will give the city more discretion in deciding whether to renew it at the end of each of three five-year periods. Those provisions were not specified in Monday’s meeting.
“I’m prepared to support the recommendation tonight, but I might not support the contract, depending on what is in it when it comes back to us,” said Councilmember John Heilman.
Heilman and Councilmember Abbe Land had argued in May 2013 that the contract should be put out to bid to see if the city could get a better deal for the businesses, home owners and apartment building owners who will be required to pay Athens to pick up their trash.
Land said Monday that she supported the proposal because of its requirement that Athens meet specific conditions during each five year period of the agreement.
Councilmember Jeffrey Prang also said he prefers to put such contracts out to bid but that he supported the Athens proposal because transitioning to a new trash vendor is difficult, the proposed contract is financially attractive, and it puts a burden on Athens to perform.
Mayor John D’Amico said he would like to see the final contract give the city more discretion in deciding whether to continue it at the end of each five-year period. “We can’t just simply say if they meet diversion rates we have to accept them,” D’Amico said.
Councilmember John Duran said he liked Athens’s proposal to collect and separate for recyling the trash that it picks up at apartment and condo buildings, many of whose residents don’t recycle themselves. Athens currently does that for business clients. Duran said he had approached Athens in 2010 to propose that it do that, but learned that the company would then increase the fees it charges building owners by as much as 20 percent.
Those fees could not have been passed along to residents of rent-controlled apartments, Duran said, further increasing the financial pressure on the building owners. The proposal before the Council Monday provides that trash separation at Athens’s “materials recovery facility” at no extra charge. The R3 Consulting analysis estimated that might save apartment building owners 20 percent over the life of the contract.
Athens originally had presented the city with four options. Two of them would have extended the contract, set to expire in June 2016, for a fixed period of either eight or 15 years, at which point it would have to be renegotiated or put out to bid. They included rate increases of eight to 20 percent for apartment and condo building owners and 1.4 percent to 2.8 percent for owners of single-family residences, which the city defines as those with one to four-units.
Two other options proposed “rolling” eight- or 15-year contracts, which would automatically renew at the end of the contract period unless the city gave notice a year in advance of its intention to not renew. Even with that notice, the contracts would not have expired until the end of the eight or 15-year term.
In negotiations with city’s Department of Public Works and R3 Consulting, a city contractor, Athens agreed to a revised contract that would require it to meet goals for diverting trash from landfills. State law currently requires that 50 percent of the trash collected in a city not be placed in a landfill. That requirement will increase to 75 percent by 2020. State law also requires that all commercial customers and apartment and condo buildings in a city have access to recycling options.
The city now meets the state requirement that 50 percent of its waste not be placed in landfills. But it meets that requirement in part because vendors other than Athens, who handle demolition and construction waste, are included in the calculation. The city requires those vendors to put no more than 20 percent of the waste they collect in landfills.
The proposal presented to the Council requires that Athens alone divert at least half of the waste it collects from landfills in the first five years of the contract. It will have to divert 60 percent in the second five years and 70 percent in the final five years. If Athens does not meet those diversion goals and other standards set by the city, West Hollywood would have the right to terminate the contract.
The proposal also allows Athens to increase the fees it charges by a rate tied to the Consumer Price Index, as does its current contract. But the new proposal sets a six percent annual cap on such increases and would not permit them if Athens doesn’t meet performance standards set by the City.
A number of speakers endorsed the Athens proposal Monday night. They included Lauren Meister, a candidate for City Council in the 2015 election, who cited the conditions Athens would be required to meet. Also speaking in support of the proposal were Genevieve Morrill, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and Todd Steadman, executive director of the Sunset Strip Business Association. Morrill said the proposal addressed what she saw as key issues: the long-term cost of trash pickup for local businesses and assuring a high quality of service by Athens.
The proposal also was opposed by some speakers. Cole Ettman, a member of the city’s Public Facilities Commission and also a declared candidate in the upcoming City Council election, said the contract should be put out to bid.
“We might have great rates, but how will we know if we don’t put things out to bid?” Ettman asked. “Athens may be the best option, but we need to look out for businesses here.”
The proposal was opposed by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which argued in a letter to the Council that the mixed waste processing that Athens now provides for commercial trash and would provide for residential waste will harm the environment.
That reprocessing involves Athens collecting trash at businesses and residences and then transporting them to its own facility where the recyclable materials are separated on a conveyer belt from those that can’t be recyled and must be put in a landfill. That process, called “MRFing” for its use of such “mixed recyling facilities” is ineffective, the NRDC said. It noted that other cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, ban what it called “dirty MRFing” and instead insist that those disposing of trash separate recyclable materials themselves for pickup.
The L.A. County Federation of Labor also sent a letter opposing the contract. It also cited the “MRFing” process in its objection. “Charged with separating recycling from conveyor belts of trash, workers are exposed to hazardous materials such as medical waste including needles and upsetting sights like dead animals and even people,” said the letter from Maria Elena Durazo, the federation’s executive secretary. “The contamination not only impacts works but also the environment, as much less recycling can be captured.”
LAANE, a coalition of environmental and labor organizations, also submitted a letter objecting to the contract extension.
“We recently celebrated the passage of a new exclusive franchise commercial waste and recycling system for the City of Los Angeles,” said Jackie Cornejo, director of LAANE’s “Don’t Waste LA” project, in the letter. “This system… is built on a highly competitive Request for Proposals (bidding) process and a three-bin system that guarantees recyling for all customers.”
The proposal also drew opposition from Hillary Gordon, chair of the Zero Waste Committee of the Sierra Club of Los Angeles. Gordon said it isn’t possible to properly sort food waste from other trash deposited in the same bin, as Athens proposes to do.
R3 Consulting and the city’s Department of Public Works will bring a final contract back to the Council for approval in the near future.