Talking Trash: Memphis Union Holds Anti-Privatization Town Hall, But Fed-up Attendees Say “Privatize It”

In an ironic twist of fate, a town hall meeting organized by a Memphis public employee union to stir up opposition to the privatization of city waste collection services ended up going in another direction. As reports:

The Bluff City’s garbage collectors are worried about their jobs getting outsourced to private companies. And they’re hoping to get the citizens of Memphis on their side. But it’s going to be a tough sell.

Frustrated Memphis taxpayers, fed up with what they describe as lousy service, trash-talked the sanitation crews during Tuesday night’s meeting on May 25, 2010.

Tired of their garbage sitting at the curbs for weeks, sometimes even months, some Memphians say privatization doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. “I pay your salary,” Whitehaven resident Samantha Rajapakse told the handfull of sanitation employees in attendance. “That’s the bottom line. When I tell you there’s a problem, there’s a problem!”

More from The Commercial Appeal:

Tuesday’s meeting quickly turned into a chance for the public to complain about garbage pickups in their neighborhoods. A man who lives on Mosby Road said trash has sat on curbs more than 30 days, killing grass while calls to city supervisors went unheeded.

When [union vice president Rodriquez] Lobbins tried to explain that the city’s Public Works Division assigns workloads and pickup schedules, the angry man who refused to identify himself stormed out of the meeting shouting, “Privatize it. Privatize it.”

The next speaker, Samantha Rajapakse said, “I somewhat concur with that gentleman … I pay your salaries, bottom line, and if you have a problem I don’t want to hear it … So I say privatize it.”

[Mayor Mayor A C] Wharton’s suggestion was that the union local form a corporation that would compete for sanitation services along with private companies. As an employee-owned business, it would give workers a stake in their jobs.

Mayor Wharton’s interest in exploring managed competition for waste services makes sense. As I recently wrote here as part of our Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey project:

[…] more than half of all U.S. cities contract out all, or part of, their solid waste collection services. The many reasons for this include cost savings (competitive delivery of solid waste services typically generates cost savings on the order of 20 to 40 percent), enhanced risk management, efficiency or technology improvements, and debt reduction.

In the late 1970s, a looming fiscal crisis prompted the city of Phoenix, Arizona to apply competition to residential solid waste collection. The city’s Public Works Department bids alongside private firms for the right to serve each of six geographic sectors, with collection services in each sector being put out to bid on a rotating schedule every seven years. Over the first 15 years of competition, the inflation adjusted costs of solid waste collection declined by 38 percent citywide. When combined with the cost savings from competitions for landfill operation and solid waste transfer hauling, Phoenix saved nearly $39 million competitively bidding for waste-related services.

Competition for solid waste collection services in Charlotte, North Carolina produced $14 million in cost savings over the first five years of the program. A 2004 statewide study of 15 North Carolina cities found that Charlotte consistently outperforms other cities in cost and efficiency for garbage, recyclables and yard waste collection. Charlotte’s collection costs per ton for garbage were 45 percent less than the statewide average, while it spent 41 percent less per household to collect garbage.

For more on privatization in municipal waste services, see here and here.

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.

The project aims to promote solvent, sustainable retirement systems that provide retirement security for government workers while reducing taxpayer and pension system exposure to financial risk and reducing long-term costs for employers/taxpayers and employees. The project team provides education, reform policy options, and actuarial analysis for policymakers and stakeholders to help them design reform proposals that are practical and viable.

In 2016 and 2017, Reason's Pension Integrity Project helped design, negotiate and draft pension reforms for the state of Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Corrections Officer Retirement Plan, which both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gilroy is also the Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation, researching privatization, public-private partnerships, infrastructure and urban policy issues.

Gilroy has a diversified background in policy research and implementation, with particular emphases on competition, government efficiency, transparency, accountability, and government performance. Gilroy has worked closely with legislators and elected officials in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, California and several other states and local governments in efforts to design and implement market-based policy approaches, improve government performance, enhance accountability in government programs, and reduce government spending.

In 2010 and 2011, Gilroy served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Arizona Commission on Privatization and Efficiency, and in 2010 he served as an advisor to the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, created by Gov. Chris Christie.

Gilroy is the editor of the widely-read Annual Privatization Report, which examines trends and chronicles the experiences of local, state, and federal governments in bringing competition to public services. Gilroy also edits Reason's Innovators in Action interview series, which profiles public sector innovators in their own words, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and more.

Gilroy's articles have been featured in such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business, CNBC, National Public Radio and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Reason, Gilroy was a senior planner at a Louisiana-based urban planning consulting firm. He also worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Gilroy earned a B.A. and M.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.