Nov. 26 2008 12:00 AM

The city of Lansing is studying whether to take control over trash pick-up services in the city, a move that would effectively kick out private trash collectors and, some say, generate up to $3.5 million in revenue.

But a potential blow to private trash haulers, plus the cost the city would have to incur to remove trash throughout the city pose questions that officials have yet to answer.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero confirmed in an interview Monday that the city is studying the feasibility of bringing residential trash service under its control.

"I think it is accurate to say the city is studying a variety of options in regards to waste management and recycling,” Bernero said, adding that the city has hired a consultant to perform the study. A portion of the study regarding recycling has been completed, but the portion that covers waste pick up has not. The recycling end of the study led to the announcement last week that residents can put all their recyclables in one bin.

Questions about the city’s plan remain — especially for Granger, which holds a “significant” market share of waste removal services in the city, company spokeswoman Tonia Olson said. Olson added that Granger is “surprised” that the city did not contact it or other solid waste haulers about its study. Waste Management also provides trash removal services in Lansing.

Rumors of a study showing that city-controlled waste services would be a great benefit have been floating around City Hall. A version of the study was supposed to be read at a July 10 Board of Public Service meeting, but it was pulled from the agenda, according to meeting minutes, because it was “still under modification.”

Despite its only being in a study stage, some say that c i t y - c o ntrolled waste s e r v i c e s would be an opportunity for the city to make money.

Other possible benefits for residents i n c l u d e : tr uck s on city streets only one day each week, as opposed to at least three; a reduced carbon footprint for the city; less wear-and-tear on roads; an additional revenue stream and the potential increase in union jobs.

In October, First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt questioned why the city wasn’t pursuing the trash study — especially because of the budget deficit — and claimed the city could make $3.5 million from it.

At the Nov. 17 City Council meeting, city Public Service Department employee Stan Shuck implored the legislators to make the study public and bring the trash service in-house. Shuck said in an interview that the program could bring in about $3.4 million annually. He said city officials familiar with the study gave that dollar amount to him. Shuck added that the move would lower trash and recycling prices, increase union jobs in the Public Service Department and increase recycling rates across the city. However, questions about whether having to collect trash from all city residents would offset the revenues — and how much the city makes from trash collection right now — have yet to be answered by officials.

As it stands, the city collects between one-third and one-fourth of Lansing residents’ trash, said Bernero. Bernero says that the city’s current system is "the most inefficient waste management system,” because t he trash is collected from locations scattered across the city. There a re other examples in the area of m un i ci pa l l y controlled waste management.

East Lansing, for example, has restricted residential trash pickup to the city-run service for at least 30 years, Public Works Director Todd Sneathen said. Sneathen cautioned that “trash is a pretty big issue,” and any changes can be cause for “consternation” on the part of residents.

He pointed to his city’s implementation of a volume-based trash system in which residents would be charged for exceeding the allowable amount of trash placed curbside. Previously, there were no limits on the amount of trash residents could put out for collection.

The change could cost some City Council members their seats in the next election. Lansing residents have the option to choose between the city and private haulers, including Granger and Waste Management, for their trash pickup.

So what would stop the city from making the change? Pushback. The mayor indicated he’d expect private haulers to immediately contact customers and rally them around the issue of consumer choice. In some sense, Bernero said,
residents who choose to have their trash removed by private companies
have already "voted with their pocketbooks.”

“Certainly it is
a topic of interest to us,” Olson said of the plan. If the city moved
toward city-run residential service, would Granger put up a fight?
“That would depend on the situation,” Olson said, adding that Granger
would have to review all available information before responding to any

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said she’d support
city-only collection if the data conclusively showed a benefit and if
residents were supportive. Council Vice President Derrick Quinney said
he’d support the move. And At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar also
said she’d support it if it were cheaper for residents and had a
"green" benefit for the city.

If the report showed a net benefit to the
city and residents in moving to city-only residential trash service,
Bernero said any changes would have to come from the bottom up and be
accompanied by a tremendous amount of education. One possibility would
be a ballot proposal, which was how Lansing implemented curbside

Bernero is cautious about any major changes that
might be read as mandates against choice. "A great way to have this
fail is to jam it down voters’ throats," he said.