POSTED ON FEBRUARY 15, 2012:
What a Mess
City leaders, TARE board and citizens each want trash their own way
After a week of two lengthy and loud public meetings focused on the new cart-based trash system, our heads are buzzing with statistics, comments from experts, city councilor promises, Tulsans' conspiracy theories and concerns, and the one question on everyone's minds: What does the future hold?
Most council meetings are plagued by low attendance and low interest, punctuated only by an occasional conspiracy theory or outburst. Most days, Tulsa Government Access Television (TGOV) beats a prescription for Ambien.
Then again, once you sink into the intricate machinations of city government, council meetings can be a treasure trove of comedy, tragedy and interesting insights. Three special hearings on Tulsa's new trash system last week offered all of this and more.
On Feb. 8, the City Council held a special public hearing to further explain trash changes and updates for concerned Tulsans. On Feb. 9, the councilors met in their chamber again to vote on how much city money would go toward new trash carts. And on Feb. 10, the Tulsa Authority for Recovery of Energy board (TARE) awarded the new trash contracts.
Feb. 8, City Hall, second floor City Council Chambers, 6pm sharp. The bright chamber gleams, as a slightly 1984-esque city of Tulsa emblem overhangs the long council bench on one side of the chamber. The councilors, only recently elected and not yet inhabiting their seats with confidence, line one side of the room while the gallery fills to standing room only.
The Tulsans who show up are, for the most part, pissed off about upcoming trash changes. The councilors hoped to dispel fears with a long, informative presentation by city employee Eric Lee. Instead, most citizens seem to know the presented facts already, and chatter throughout the more than two-hour meeting.
The only PowerPoint slide that could have appeased a big segment of this crowd would read simply: "Just kidding. This whole constitutional requirement that we competitively bid out our trash contractors' services? Yeah, we were just joking around. As you were, citizens. Cheers and love, your city government."
But no. As City Council Chairman and District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum said repeatedly, this meeting is only to explain what will happen. They can't change anything and can't decide anything except how much we'll pay for new trash carts and our new rates for trash service.
Before Lee began flipping through his PowerPoint slides, another new face, City Attorney David O'Meilia told the gathered crowd the change to a cart-based trash system "has already been made, in other words, it's a done deal... And this council is unable to change or modify that decision that moves the city to a cart-based residential refuse system."
Many voiced frustration over the power of one small trash board to make sweeping changes that affect all Tulsans. The TARE board, O'Meilia explained, is a "public trust" that "has the sole legal authority to plan, establish or operate or cause to operate through their authority" the city's trash system.
Who knew, right? One smallish board of appointed people has been deciding how to change our entire trash system. Over the past six months, the board has remained shrouded in mystery. Whether we like it or not, a lot of trust has been placed in their hands. And let's just say a lot of us have serious trust issues.
Lee, a tall, slender and blond city worker in his early 40s, began his hour-long explanation of Tulsa's integrated solid waste system with clear explanations of everything from the reasons for the bidding process, the bid package and results, to why we're changing our service after more than three decades.
Cue the angry gallery.
Lee explained that the TARE board began in 2006 to address three areas: a uniform collection service, a fair and equitable rate structure that will encourage recycling and yard waste re-use, and the end of Tulsa Refuse Inc.'s (TRI) contract.
Currently, the city has two separate services for trash pickup. About 20 percent of citizens (in the northwest quadrant, mostly District 1 and a chunk of District 3) have once-a-week service through city of Tulsa crews. The rest have twice-a-week service through TRI's member haulers.
"Both services report more than a 93 percent satisfaction rate," Lee said.
This is perhaps one of the most important statistics out of the whole whirlwind trash situation. Once-a-week service or twice-a-week service, buy your own carts or city-provided carts, it doesn't really matter. Whatever you've had for 32 years is what you want. Change sucks, even if the alternative isn't a bad one.
A key part of TARE's investigations have focused on providing more responsible collection services that don't cost recyclers and low users more than others.
Currently, the northwest part of the city has a totally different system from the rest of Tulsa.
Tulsa is behind other Oklahoma cities and U.S. metros in our recycling efforts.
Lee said low generators and recycling households "currently subsidize large generators" of trash. Those who are more responsible about sorting their recyclables pay more than those who just throw everything into one bin.
With the new service, Lee said, "People would be responsible for what they put out."
Concerned citizens fussed and clucked in the gallery like disgruntled hens in a henhouse all evening. During the Q&A period, the din of displeasure heightened, especially after the question, "Can citizens choose not to accept a recycling cart?"
Lee attempted to answer the question, but a few people began shouting down his response. Chairman Bynum said, "We can't have people shouting from the gallery," as Tulsans bellowed about not wanting a recycling cart.
Another question asked if the council could promise that new recycling carts -- and their RFID chips, a common technology also included in Pike Passes -- would never lead to mandatory recycling. "I don't have a crystal ball," Lee said, "But not once in any of the meetings I have attended has the TARE board said the goal was mandatory recycling. I think the goal is to give customers the option to recycle so that they can lower their utility bill."
The one new councilor who appeared assured and talkative was District 4 City Councilor Blake Ewing. At several points during the meeting, Ewing addressed the gathered crowd with practical and logical statements.
During several questions, Ewing jumped into the fray as other councilors sat silent. The 32-year-old councilor and entrepreneur was on a recycling and refuse task force, along with Chairman Bynum and others.
During another suspicion-fueled question about whether TARE is providing correct and accurate numbers, Ewing broke down his own logic. "I guess I want to make this part of it really clear. We all have different roles in this, and I know that's often confusing to you guys," he said.
"You showed up on Election Day and put a Sharpie on a piece of paper and voted us into this building. And you're wondering why that gesture wasn't sufficient to place a representative here that could truly pursue your interests and concerns without hindrance. And that's the thing we get a whole lot of," he said.
"These [TARE board] bid documents, we can look at 'em, but I guess in answering that I want to be really clear that it's not under our authority to do anything about them. That's not our role, it's beyond our limitations.
"And I know that's confusing and I know that really stinks for a lot of you who want us to be able to do something about it. But the reality is, that's charter, that's law established before you voted us into this room," he said.
The Pizza Margin
Ewing said that the council can review the documents to verify the facts and figures ahead of those documents being made public. "I know that there's conspiracy, there's always conspiracy theory about these things," he said. "If we've lied to [the citizens] up front, you're going to know soon enough."
Ewing said it's been no secret that the council has had frustrations with the TARE board and the new trash system process.
Ewing also explained the council's decisions on rate structure with a metaphor pulled from his experience as the owner of Joe Momma's, the Blue Dome pizza joint. "The council sets the rate. What the bidders did is just bid on the cost," he said. "The rates are not directly attached to the costs. Just like anything. I may have a 15 percent [profit] margin on a cheese pizza and an eight percent margin on a pepperoni pizza, I get to choose the rates regardless of what the costs are. Same thing is true here," Ewing stated.
"If I'm wrong, then you know, vote for the other guy next time around," he said. "I've been wrong before."
After almost two hours of council discussion, Tulsans were given one minute each to comment on the new trash service. But red tape tied the hands of many would-be speakers, including recycling activist Lauren Lunsford. As she began to explain her hopes of educating the community about the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling in the new trash system, she was cut off by Chairman Bynum.
Bynum explained that a few councilors "have been sued a couple of times over the open meetings act," and that they must stick to their slender agenda topic. But after cutting the mic on several speakers, Bynum and the rest of the council allowed citizens to voice their 60 seconds of thoughts without interruption.
One speaker wanted to see the TARE board's authority dissolved and returned to the city council. Another outraged man said he was frustrated that citizens only received one minute to speak while they had to sit through Lee's presentation "to tell us things we already knew... You invited us to this meeting tonight to hear from the public, and then you're going to cut us off in one minute? I don't really think you're very interested," he said.
His mic was cut after 60 seconds though he continued to speak. "Sir, your time is expired," he was told more than once. The crowd applauded the older gentleman as he walked from the podium.
Another Tulsan thanked the council for the public meeting, but criticized the TARE board for finding "frivolous expensive solutions in search of a problem." A few supported the proposed cart-based system and hope for more recycling in the future.
Musical Chairs, City Style
The next afternoon, Council Chambers, 1pm on Wed., Feb. 9. This special meeting was set up for discussion and a vote on how much money (if any) the council would allocate for the purchase of new wheeled trash carts.
A lot of Tulsans in attendance were troubled by the wording of the resolution, specifically about the particulars of "financing the acquisition, furnishing, equipping, maintaining, storing and delivering of trash carts and other capital improvements, equipment and facilities for use..."
Much of the discussion by City Council focused again on Councilor Ewing. He attempted to reduce the amount of money allowed by the TARE board to buy carts, which may have required the board to dip into its reserve fund to cover the costs (again with the shroud of uneasy mystery).
"What I'm trying to do is respond to public concern over the TARE reserve, public concern over some of the other expenditures, public concern over the public education budget," Ewing explained.
Ewing and District 6 City Councilor David Patrick (also a member of the TARE board) batted figures back and forth. Ultimately, the council settled on a nice, plump figure -- about $11.25 million, though the TARE board asked for $14.5 million.
In an odd game of musical chairs, councilors asked rapid-fire questions, calling various experts to the podium often before they had a chance to sit down from the previous question. City Finance Director Mike Kier and trash experts Lee and Andy Huggins (and others) each got their exercise in before the council decided on a course of action.
The Long Wait
Before the council voted, they asked the entire gallery of citizens to get up and stand in the hallway while they convened for an executive session. "I hate to do this to you," Bynum said.
But before we knew it, about 50 involved Tulsans, reporters and city employees were milling around in the hallway. Inside chambers, councilors and the city attorney discussed "potential litigation from the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy against the city of Tulsa related to the issuance of new service contracts" for more than an hour. This private discussion centered on the possibility of lawsuits if the council decided against awarding the full amount the board requested.
Soon, many people decided to wait out the closed-door session by sitting on the cool, slick marble floors of City Hall as they buzzed about the TARE board's reserve fund, which hovers around $13 million.
When the councilors reconvened their afternoon meeting, they voted unanimously to give the trash board $11.25 million in debt to pay for the new carts.
The vote came a day before the TARE board's special 4:30pm meeting on Fri., Feb. 10. With their costs and monies approved, the board awarded the hauling contract and cart purchase agreement.
The board awarded Tulsa's residential trash and recycling collection contract to the lowest bidder, NeWSolutions. The contract is for 10 years with two optional two-year renewals. The board also chose the lowest bidder -- North Carolina-based Toter -- for the 250,000 new carts for the city's new trash collection system.
Locally owned NeWSolutions was founded by former TRI President Jason Kannady as well as other former TRI employees.
All is well in the world of city trash...for now. As these things go, it's one trash bag forward and two trash bags back. The TARE board will meet soon to figure out a new rate structure, which the council will discuss, switch up, argue over, and ultimately approve.
So you want to keep up with all the goings-on in council chambers? Starting now, council committee meetings will be held on Thursday afternoons. Since the early 1990s, the city council has held two standing committee meetings -- Public Works at 8am and Urban and Economic Development at 10am -- on Tuesday mornings.
On Dec. 13, councilors voted 6-2 to move these committee meetings from Tuesday mornings to Thursday afternoons.
Starting Thurs., Feb. 16, the Public Works Committee will meet on Thursdays at 1pm, while the Urban Development Committee will convene at 2pm; the council's pre-meeting will begin at 5pm and the regular council meeting will begin at 6pm.
Budget or Community Development Block Grant Committee meetings will be held seasonally at 3:30pm.
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