Commission terminates trash contract

........................................................................................................................................................................................

After several weeks of debate, the trash contract between the county and Waste Management was dumped last week.

Knowing they were headed for a lengthy discussion, the commissioners called for a short break before tackling the penultimate item on their Aug. 6 agenda — amend or terminate the contract with Waste Management for residential trash hauling in the unincorporated parts of the county.

The decision to terminate the contract was made on a surprise 4-0 vote. Commissioner Lawrence Romero was ill and not able to attend the meeting.

Commission Chairman Charles Eaton made the motion to terminate the contract and Commissioner Alicia Aguilar seconded but only after the two spent close to 30 minutes enumerating their concerns and questions about the contract.

It was then that Commissioner Mary Andersen, a consistent supporter of the contract, said given the circumstances, she would vote to cancel the contract.

Andersen said a contract was a legal agreement between two parties that took work from both sides, and in the case of the contract with Waste Management, there was still a lot of discussion needed.

"But that probably cannot happen. There are only two people on this commission who are going to be here to answer these questions (in the future)," Andersen said.

She was referring to Eaton and Aguilar, the two commissioners who hold seats that are not up for re-election in the November general election races.

"I think the obligations of any contractor is they do their job and pick up trash. The county has the obligation to make things work and not put barriers in front of that contractor," the commissioner continued. "I don't see that happening.

"I don't want to put the county in danger of going forward with a contract … then to find out next year the contract has absolutely no support from the commission. That is what I see happening."

Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon, who is up for re-election this fall because he was appointed to the vacancy in District 5 last year, said he wholeheartedly agreed with Andersen.

"We need to work past this now. We have opposition from the two commissioners who will return for sure (to the commission). I feel that it's in the best interest of the county to go ahead and terminate the contract basically because of that," Aragon said.

He added that he didn't want to see the discussion and work on the issue of trash hauling in the county die away because the contract was canceled.

"I want a discussion immediately to happen to address this situation. Conejo is in dire need," he said. "We need to start the discussion immediately and look toward another plan. I don't want this dropped."

Eaton said the issue would not be dropped.

"We have serious problems with illegal dumping," Eaton said. "It was not a problem that developed overnight and it won't be addressed overnight. It involves all of us working together as a team. It's not going to be easy; it's going to cost some money."

Eaton was concerned how Waste Management was hoping to collect delinquent accounts.

The ordinance calls for the county to place liens on properties of residents who don't pay their bills, but Eaton wanted to know who would be tasked with enforcing those liens — the county or Waste Management.

He was also "deeply disturbed" that up to four county employees could potentially lose their jobs if Waste Management or the county didn't adsorb them when it took over operations of Conejo.

Aguilar was also concerned about the liens and the fact that the county's ordinance would have to be revised to align with the Waste Management contract.

And the fact that just who would pay the tipping fees for trash collected at Conejo was still up in the air didn't sit well with her either.

Andersen said when she served on the commission the first time, from 2003 to 2006, the county fought illegal dumping then.

"And these last four years, we've been attempting to do something about trash. This (contract) was supposed to be the beginning of a comprehensive solid waste program. Obviously, that isn't going to happen," she said. "The word I keep coming back to, well the word is stupidity. If you keep doing the same blasted thing and it doesn't work, that's stupidity. If you're going to do something, for goodness sake, do it right."

Aguilar said for the commission to try to blame two commissioners was politicizing the issue.

"There are questions on both sides," Aguilar said.

She then delivered a Spanish idiom which drew chuckles from some members of the audience. After the meeting, Aguilar said the saying basically meant you have to use wisdom and common sense to solve problems instead of letting outsiders tell you what to do, like you're idiots.

"We have to do what is best for the community, to serve them in a fair, ethical way," Aguilar said during the meeting.

"And this commission is never going to get there," Andersen said.

Aguilar shot back with, "Bull**it."

With the Waste Management contract off the table, trash services in the unincorporated county will continue as usual.

In a phone interview Monday, county public works director Kelly Bouska said the county sent out a letter last Friday to all the residential haulers advising them that the franchise contracts would stay in place.

"They may continue hauling under the franchise agreements through Sept. 3, 2014," Bouska said.

The contracts will be up for their annual renewal at that time, she added.

Bouska said County Manager Jeff Condrey would be advising the county commission that the four employees at the Conejo Transfer Station have asked the collection center be closed Sundays and Mondays.

"They would like at least one weekend day off with their families, after a year of operating with only four people" she said.

Now Bouska and other county administrators will begin evaluating how to move forward with solid waste services.

"We are trying to give the commissioners as much information as possible to decide what to do. There are substantial capital investments needed at Conejo and in equipment. We are compiling that to see how to make that happen," she said.

According to figures presented to the commissioners at last week's meeting, the county's solid waste program receives annual transfers totaling $164,632 from the county general fund to operate.

Estimated revenues from commercial and residential franchise fees and an environmental gross receipts tax bring in about $236,623.

Annual operations and maintenance costs for Conejo just for equipment and the center itself run about $328,000 annually. Estimated one-time expenses to upgrade the Conejo station and replace equipment total $985,000.

In the county's 2016-2020 infrastructure capital improvement plan shows only one trash-related project — a $200,000 request for funding for illegal dumping abatement equipment.

Bouska said the county's solid waste ordinance might still need to be changed, such as splitting the current ordinance into three different pieces to address residential services, commercial haulers and illegal dumping.

"I think we need to clarify each of those pieces," Bouska said.

During the last three months, operational changes have been made at Conejo that have led to shorter lines and fewer shutdowns, Bouska said.

"Now, things still happen. I was up there on Friday and we weren't able to open until 8:30 a.m. because two dogs had gotten in and we had to remove them before we could operate," she said. "Operations will continue status quo until we have direction and clear goals. We still understand the way Conejo operates is not optimal.

"If we are going to continue to operate, then we need to make sure residents' expectations are being met."

Bouska said it was her understanding that the county's 2014-15 fiscal year budget had funds allocated for nine months of operations of Conejo.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.