Dozens of concerned residents filled the Bell Gardens council chamber Monday when a proposed contract with Athens’ trash hauling services sparked passionate pleas from both those who support and those who oppose the contract.
The council’s unanimous approval of a 15-year rolling contract for its residential trash hauling did not sit well with many of the residents at the meeting who had argued 15 years is too long for an exclusive contract.
“Why don’t you just give them the city right now,” said Bell Gardens resident Joaquin Madrigal in a raised voice. “You’re doing all of this on the backs of us, the residents,” he said angrily.
Madrigal warned the council to not delay their vote until the next meeting in hopes that fewer would be at the meeting to witness their action.
The “evergreen” provision allows Athens’ contract to automatically renew each year until either the city or the company provides notice to terminate the contract. Whether the city notifies Athens in the first or fourteenth year, Athens is guaranteed 15 more years from that point forward, that is unless the city terminates the contract because Athens has failed to meet the terms of the contract, including quality of service and reaching mandated diversion rates.
The contract only applies to residential trash hauling; businesses can still contract with any company they want.
City officials say the long-term contract will alleviate the deficit in the city’s trash hauling fund, caused by fees being lower then the actual cost for service. The city has been subsidizing the service with money from the general fund.
Former Bell Gardens councilman Mario Beltran voted to bring Athens to the city when he was on the council. He said Monday he still supports contracting with the company, but considers the evergreen component of the contract “dangerous” because it locks the city into working with Athens for too long.
Beltran also took issue with the way the rate increase was bundled up with the contract, suggesting the city’s agenda did not detail clearly enough that trash-hauling fees would be going up.
“Tell the voters that [fees will go up] and ask them to pay,” he told the council angrily.
He said he respects that increases may be necessary, but told the council to be clear about their intentions.
Some residents implied the $5,000 in campaign contributions that Councilman Jose Mendoza, Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores and Mayor Daniel Crespo each received from Athens in the last election was to ensure support for the contract.
“I suppose it’s because you have to repay [Athens] for all the contributions that they made to your campaigns,” said Lissette Saavedra. “That is why you are protecting this company,” she said accusingly.
Flores defended the contributions, saying “it’s not untypical” for elected officials to seek contributions from companies in the city. “I can see how political opponents could try to bring that up, but you have to look at their agenda,” she said. “It’s very irresponsible for them to do this.”
With former Bell Gardens councilmembers Beltran and recently ousted Sergio Infanzon sitting in the audience, Flores told EGP that she felt there was a political ploy to “stir the pot” and create panic among residents.
“There’s that bitterness … it is an attack,” she said in a frustrated tone. “I think I would be concerned if it were other residents, but the people that I saw are the same people that will complain if you get a new clock on the wall …They’ll complain about anything just because it’s not them doing it.”
City Manager Phillip Wagner told EGP a lot of people and businesses contribute to candidates running for office in the city. “My recommendations are not based on campaign contributions to council members,” he said. I believe the current council makes decisions based on what they think is right or wrong for the city, he added.
Wagner told EGP that before Monday his office had not received any complaint about the contract proposal.
“Whenever something like this comes up you have political opportunists that come to try to make something they know is beneficial for our community controversial,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez. “Instead of educating the public on what the benefits of this is going to be, they come and try to create animosity against the council and our community.”
Ron Saldana, executive director for the Los Angeles County Disposal Association (LACDA), urged the council to not enter into the long-term agreement. The nonprofit LACDA says its goal is to promote fair business practices for the solid waste industry haulers they represent.
“Rates are going down, not up,” Saldana claimed. “Waste is becoming a commodity … there’s really no reason for [a 15-year contract].”
Independent haulers have taken several hits in recent years, as more cities move toward limiting trash-hauling services to a single provider, giving independent contractors less leverage during contract negotiations.
Wagner said the contract would set limits on service rate increases, which he said were bound to go up due to the closure of the Puente Hills Landfill last year.
Residents will see an increase in waste collections fees on their 2014-2015 property taxes. Rates are expected to increase from $15.88 for the three-barrel service to $18.93 for a two-barrel service during the first year, going up to $25.08 by the fifth year, not including increases for inflation.
Blue recycling barrels will be eliminated and residents will no longer have to separate their recyclables, eliminating a truck trip for Athens, which will separate recyclables at its trash-processing center.
Residents pay $15.88 for trash hauling but according to the city the actual cost over the last four years is $17.08. The city has been subsidizing the service to the tune of $132,000 a year. The deficit in Bell Gardens’ Waster Management Fund has hit $391,000, and is expected to exceed $700,000 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year.
“We have no choice,” said Wagner. “We can’t do it any longer.”
Wagner believes the city is being proactive, locking down rates now. Rate increases would still be among the lowest in L.A. County, he said.
Longtime resident Martha Rodriguez was concerned that the council and staff had not presented any comparisons. She said rate increases would be hard on the city’s low-income community.
“If you had other offers by other companies I would like to know about them,” she demanded in Spanish.
Wagner again defended the contract saying Athens has guaranteed the city would reach state government mandates aimed at reducing the amount of waste entering landfills, ensuring the city would not face costly fines that could be as much as $10,000 a day.
Under the agreement, Athens guarantees that the diversion rates, which describe how much waste is diverted from landfills, would go from 23% to the 50% as required by state recycling laws.
“Bell Gardens will be the leading community in this area for recycling and processing of their waste,” said Gary Clifford, chief operating officer and executive vice president for Athens Services. “[The city] will be number one.”
Pointing to the $250,000 in franchise fee the city would receive the first year of the contract, followed by at least $30,000 every year of the contract, longtime resident Ron Hoyt also said the city must be more transparent.
“This is not transparency,” he insisted. “I know this [fee] would help the budget a great deal but this is not the way to do it, on the backs of poor residents.”
Residents called the franchise fee a “gift” from Athens, implying it was meant to persuade the contract decision.
Wagner quickly noted that the “gift” was anything but, and is expected when entering into such agreements. He said the funds would go toward the city’s general fund and would help eliminate the waste management deficit by 2019.
Other residents spoke in favor of the agreement, including Bell Gardens Chamber of Commerce Vice President Robert Rubio who said the company has “really been there” for the city, supporting community projects such as the $50,000 donation towards the Ford Park soccer fields.
“Athens is the best company for the job,” Victor Lopez, a seven-year resident said in Spanish.
After nearly half an hour of public comment, Mayor Crespo asked the city clerk how much time was left for discussion, something rarely done at council meetings.
Under the law, public comments on agenda items are limited to 30 minutes, however many councils allow for all residents who turned in a comment card to have their turn to speak before closing the public comment portion of the meeting.
Flores said the council has been working on this agreement for years and assured the public that making the decision to enter into an evergreen contract was not easy.
“We don’t want to raise these rates, but it’s going to have to come from somewhere,” she said.
As previously reported by EGP, in 2008 the city of Montebello approved a similar 15-year evergreen agreement with Athens. The city did not at the time have an exclusive contract with Athens or any trash hauler, with service being provided by several independent contractors who fought the city’s efforts to enter in to an exclusive agreement saying it would “kill” their businesses.
The deal didn’t last very long, however, with more than 10% of the city’s registered voters petitioning to require that the contract go before the voters before a final decision was made.
Although the referendum never made it to the ballot, the Montebello council was able to end the “evergreen” agreement with Athens in 2010 amid anticipated litigation.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an ordinance to restructure the city’s commercial waste hauling business, for the first time creating exclusive franchise zones in the city and doing away with the long time practice of allowing commercial customers to contract with a company of their choosing.
Athens has had an exclusive residential contract with the city of Bell Gardens since 2008, but has been doing business with the city since 1999.