Larimer County Officials Can’t Have Their Cake and Eat It Too

Monte Whaley of The Denver Post recently reported on the decrease in garbage at the Larimer County, Colorado landfill saying, “Less garbage is flowing into Colorado’s landfills extending the life of dumps but cutting into the revenue stream that allows them to keep running.”

According to Whaley, the downturn in trash collection is hampering profits at the Larimer County Landfill, the only public Front Range county landfill. In 2010 the landfill processed 9.2% less trash than in 2009. The decline in trash collection resulted in a 4.9% drop in revenue, despite increasing tipping fees by 4.2%.

The decrease in garbage being sent to the public dump is the result of several trends. First, families and businesses are recycling at an increasing rate thereby reducing the amount of trash. Whaley’s article cites Laurie Batchelder Adams-president of Denver-based LBA Associates Inc.-who said construction has slowed leading to less construction-site refuse and other nonhazardous materials, which comprise up to 50% of the waste stream in rural landfills.

In order to address this problem the county is considering changing its fee structure to lure business from private landfills. One leading idea is implementing tiered fees to give better rates to customers who generate more trash.

Larimer County officials can’t have their cake and eat it too. Citizens have reduced trash generation, increased recycling and extended the longevity of the landfill – why would the county then incentivize increased trash generation to lure business away from private landfills? Perhaps the more appropriate move would be to privatize the only remaining public landfill in Larimer County, so it can join the ranks of privately operated landfills that have effectively coped with changes in consumer behavior.

The private sector has an established track record of success in this area public service delivery. In fact, communities across the United States commonly partner with for-profit contractors to manage trash collection. According to recent Reason Foundation research, 29% of metropolitan communities and 57.3% of suburban communities partner with for-profit contractors to handle residential waste collection. Similarly, 35.5% of metropolitan communities and 51.9% of suburban communities rely on for-profit contractors for waste disposal services.

For example, The Press of Atlantic City reported that Wildwood, New Jersey city officials awarded a five-year, $2.3 million residential waste and recycling contract to Blue Diamond Disposal in May 2010. Officials estimate that the contract will save the city over $4 million over the life of the contract, with annual savings of $700,000 in salaries and wages, $150,000 in capital expenses, and another $150,000 in fuel and fleet services.

Collecting garbage and managing landfills are simply not core governmental functions, and they represent a great opportunity for communities to partner with the private sector to save money and maintain high-quality public service delivery.

For more, see this past Reason Foundation study on privatizing landfills here, and Reason Foundation’s privatization archive here.