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Photo by Ryan Howard

Members of local garbage hauler SRC (including owner Marge Strand, second from left) listen during a Forest Lake City Council open forum discussion July 8 on which business the council should choose to handle its refuse and recycling services.

The Forest Lake City Council voted 4-1 (with Councilman Sam Husnik against) at its July 8 meeting to negotiate a contract for refuse hauling with Republic Services. If approved by the council at a special meeting next week, the contract would go into effect in August, effectively ending for now the professional relationship between the city and Wyoming-based hauler SRC, which has hauled trash and recyclables for residents in Forest Lake (and, before the township merger, Forest Lake Township) for decades.

Asked after the decision about what area residents could expect for the future of SRC, owner Marge Strand said one thing was certain: “change.” The company services a 20-mile radius around Wyoming, not as an exclusive hauler, and Strand said how exactly the loss of the Forest Lake contract and its almost 4,900 garbage accounts would affect SRC’s bottom line and future business decisions still needs to be worked out. She said Forest Lake residents deserve no less than SRC’s level of customer service from any new hauler, and she thanked the customers who contacted the city in support of keeping SRC’s contract in place and spoke up at meetings in support of the business.

“We appreciate it very much,” she said.

The four people voting in favor of negotiating with the Phoenix, Arizona-based Republic cited the business’s low bid for trash and recycling service and its more robust offering of material residents can recycle as key reasons for their approval (a broader slate of customer options was also a factor). In addition to Republic and SRC, Blaine-based Walters Recycling and Refuse also submitted a bid.

By the numbers

According to City Attorney Bridget Nason, the responses to the request for proposals for garbage service sent out by the city in May were subject to Minnesota state statute 13.591, which carried a complicated explanation. Essentially, she said, the statute designated the contents of the proposals as non-public information that could only be discussed by the council in a public meeting. As such, the city could not release any documentation on the proposals until after a contract is negotiated with a hauler, but the council could, and had to, discuss that information during the public meeting – and not outside of it.

All the numbers discussed during the meeting were presented by City Administrator Patrick Casey, who was working with a spreadsheet that was only accessible by council members and city staff. Casey broke down the projected annual costs for the first year of service for each of the three businesses in a five-year contract and extrapolated those costs out based on each of the respondents’ projected cost increases and the same customer base that SRC currently has.

According to Casey, Republic’s annual cost to a customer for refuse and recycling would be $232.80, compared to $260.04 from Walters and $309.72 for SRC. The total annual price difference between the high and low bid is $76.92, or an average of $6.41 per month (Casey did not present weekly or monthly prices at the meeting). Extrapolated out from projected price increases and current local customer base, Casey estimated that Republic’s refuse and recycling contract would cost Forest Lake’s customers approximately $5.96 million, compared to Walters’ $6.66 million and SRC’s $7.83 million – a price difference of approximately $1.87 million between the high and low bids.

Strand and Husnik urged the city to also factor in the money Forest Lake residents save in coupons provided by SRC; according to SRC, the coupons represent $173,000 in returned revenue to Forest Lake customers over the last 58 months (just shy of five years), and the business planned to double its coupon program soon, potentially saving residents as much as approximately $350,000 over the next five years. If this number was subtracted from Casey’s projection of SRC’s five-year refuse and recycling cost, the difference between it and Republic’s cost would drop to approximately $1.52 million.

From there, Casey moved to yard waste costs. On this score, SRC was the clear low bidder, charging $70 for a cart (plus $10 per extra cart per season), while Republic charged $118.64 (plus $20 per season for an extra cart) and Walters charged $125 (plus $7 per season for an extra cart). After a brief detour on the cost to pick up extra bags of refuse (the difference between all three haulers was very slight), Casey then turned to additional services.

During the council’s May discussion of what to put in the RFP, Strand raised concerns that a number of the ideas posed by Casey and the council members were impractical or unaffordable, and SRC’s proposal reflected her previously expressed views. Regarding what Casey referred to as a “valet service” – offered in an attempt to help seniors and those with disabilities in the form of garbage haulers getting out of their vehicles to bring trash containers to the curb – SRC declined to provide the opt-in service, while Republic and Walters would offer it (at press time, it wasn’t clear whether numbers cited at the meeting were an annual, monthly or weekly charge, and the city’s position was that staff and council were legally unable to comment on the data outside a meeting). SRC would not provide free service at city buildings and special city events while Republic and Walters would (“This is a very common practice in the waste industry,” Casey said, noting that he’d spoken to other area administrators on the topic). Casey said the city currently spends approximately $12,400 per year on refuse removal from city buildings and special events. Republic also offered pick-up at a later date at no extra charge for customers who forgot to put their garbage out on trash day, while SRC would charge $35 and Walters would charge $50.

Finally, Casey’s discussion moved to recycling – specifically the different types of plastic that each hauler allows in its recycling bins. SRC, said Casey, takes types 1 and 2 (including such household items as drink bottles, cooking oil, shampoo bottles, milk jugs and similar objects), while the other two haulers said they accept all seven types. Strand disputed the usefulness of this, stating that she’d heard many of the different types of plastic taken to the area Waste Management facility are simply burned.

“We’re being asked to recycle things and it’s all a – oh, it sounds like such a wonderful, good thing, we’re all saving the Earth,” she said. “But we’re not. It’s a lot of lip service.”

However, representatives from the two other haulers insisted that though recycling markets have been bad for more than a year, all of the recyclables they get are actually recycled, not thrown away.

Feedback

About 50 people were in the audience during the discussion, and most of the people who spoke before Casey’s presentation did so in favor of keeping SRC as the local hauler. One longtime resident, Lee Boehm, said she’d been living in Forest Lake since 1966 and that SRC had served her family well the whole time, including during periods where her home day care service went through dozens of diapers a day.

“We’ve been satisfied with SRC,” she said. “If they want to raise their prices by $10 a month, then I’m all for it, because they deserve it.”

Karen Morehead urged the council to consider the gravity of their decision, which would end a contract with a local business with deep roots. The business has been in operation for 55 years – longer than some of the council members have been alive, Morehead added – spending the last 34 of those in the hands of Strand and her late husband, Cameron. Morehead pointed out the local residency of many of SRC’s employees as well as the community interaction and generosity to local causes demonstrated by the Strands over the years.

“You’re looking at taking [a contract from] a company that has been here longer than you and saying for what, a few dollars maybe, that it’s worth it? It’s not,” she said.

One resident, however, had a concern about SRC, one that was ultimately listed by some council members as a factor in their final decision. Leslie Butler brought a few plastic items she said SRC did not want in their recycling bins, including two pieces of type 1 plastics she said SRC did not want because they didn’t have long necks.

“This is a problem for me. I care about the environment, and I know that the first plastic bottle ever that was ever made has not had enough time to decompose yet,” she said. “I want a place for the plastic to go.”

Council decides

After the open forum and Casey’s presentation, Husnik was quick to lay out his support for keeping SRC on as the hauler. He said the convenient and low-cost yard waste service was a nice way to offset SRC’s higher cost for refuse and recycling, adding that the value of supporting a business so closely intertwined with Forest Lake’s community was invaluable.

“I’m really concerned about the local business,” he said. “I’m concerned about the tax base and what they pay in taxes into our school system and all that.”

Councilman Paul Girard focused on the financial differences between the offers, pointing out that though losing SRC as the hauler would result in less money for the local business, it would put the extra money from the lower contract cost back into the pockets of local consumers.

“When the day’s over, people really want their garbage and recycling picked up at the curb, problem solved, and I don’t think they’re too concerned – to be honest, most people – who it is,” he remarked, drawing disapproving murmurs from some in the crowd.

Mayor Mara Bain and Councilwomen Kathy Bystrom and Kelly Monson presented their choices as based on both fiscal matters and recycling issues, while trying to be cognizant of the strong relationship SRC has with many in the community. All three also said they’d received mixed feelings from the community on the topic, with some residents voicing loyalty to SRC and others encouraging the council to look at all proposals objectively.

“This [decision] is not personal,” Bystrom said of her vote. “We have a lot of incredible intangibles here that I know are very important to some.”

Monson said she’d recently visited SRC’s Wyoming facility and credited the business for picking the approved recyclables out of large amounts of material that shouldn’t be recycled. However, she said she wanted a more robust recycling program with a bigger community communication component, saying that it was “appalling” what some Forest Lake residents thought was appropriate to toss in the recycling bin.

“Forest Lake needs some huge education on what to recycle,” she said.

Bain said she wouldn’t have as much of a problem justifying the additional cost of going with SRC if the business was offering service equivalent to that of its competitors, but in her mind, the local hauler wasn’t matching up. In an era when she would like to see a hauler with a more aggressive approach to encouraging recycling, she said, SRC seemed to her to be withdrawing from such efforts or even discouraging recycling from occurring as current markets deem the practice unprofitable.

“It’s not an apples-to-apples service,” she said. “We are getting a smaller recycling program for a 33 percent premium.”

After the vote, some in the crowd jeered the council before leaving the chambers. The council’s July 15 work session will now be paired with a special meeting to approve the negotiated contract with Republic (at which point the contents of the proposals will become public information). SRC’s current contract with Forest Lake ends Aug. 3. If all goes according to the city’s current plan, Republic’s first hauling day will be Aug. 5.

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