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Photo by Ryan Howard

Wyoming-based garbage hauler SRC has held Forest Lake’s trash hauling contract for decades, but the Forest Lake City Council may make a change this summer, after it’s finished seeking proposals for garbage contracts from area haulers.

Forest Lake City Council members took a look May 20 at a tentative request for proposals for the city’s garbage service and started firming up the final document, which area garbage haulers will be able to respond to this summer. Meanwhile, current city garbage hauler SRC made its case again for continuing with the city in the role it’s held for decades.

The council’s issues with SRC have cropped up intermittently since 2014, the last time the hauler’s contract with the city was up. Then, the council – which has no members in common with the current body – expressed dissatisfaction with the terms of the contract offered by SRC compared to the cheaper contract from a non-local hauler (SRC is based in Wyoming and regularly participates in Forest Lake community initiatives). Ultimately, the council narrowly voted at that time to renew its contract with SRC.

In the fall of 2018, the council and SRC butted heads when SRC asked to be allowed to raise its rates while still under contract. After much debate, the council approved a smaller rate increase than SRC owner Marge Strand requested. Mayor Mara Bain, then a councilwoman, and Councilman Sam Husnik, the only two current council members who were part of that decision, were on opposite sides of the issue, with Husnik in favor of granting the full cost increase and Bain favoring a smaller amount.

In February of this year, the council gave its approval to City Administrator Patrick Casey to begin the process of drafting a request for proposals, or RFP, for the hauler contract. SRC would still be able to offer a proposal during that process; its contract is up in August.

The May 20 work session allowed the public and council members the opportunity to look at the work-in-progress version of the RFP. Before the council discussion, the council heard from a pair of audience members about the topic – Planning Commissioner Eric Langness praising the council for its openness to other options besides SRC and former School Board Member Karen Morehead urging the body to keep its relationship with a business she believes is a community institution. The body also heard from Strand, who reiterated SRC’s goal of retaining the garbage contract while raising a number of issues with the language in the proposed RFP.

The proposed RFP stipulated that contracts include weekly trash collection, every other week recyclable collection, and weekly seasonal yard waste collection, along with other services like free trash and recyclable collection from city properties, annual special collection days like a spring cleanup and fall leaf collection day, and hauler education to customers about refuse and recycling topics. The draft also outlined several other requirements, including one disputed by multiple council members that would prohibit the garbage hauler from ceasing service to delinquent accounts. The draft is available to read in full in the agenda for the May 20 meeting, found at tinyurl.com/y2umtjw3.

Strand started her remarks by questioning if the council really wanted some of the elements of the RFP to stay, including the free city property pickup, listing sizes of garbage containers that residents don’t currently use, the prohibition of a fuel surcharge and more. She also listed multiple concerns about logistical issues with ideas like the spring cleanup day or an opt-in subscriber “walk-up” service for people unable or unwilling to get their garbage to the curb.

“That could be a real boondoggle,” she said of the cleanup day, which would see the garbage hauler’s trucks picking up very large and possibly unusual loads on the day of the event. “We have 36 square miles of this … city to cover.”

She reserved her largest criticism for the delinquent accounts policy, calling it “absurd.”

“If I have an overdue bill at any retail store, anywhere in Forest Lake, I can’t go in there and expect to walk out of there with a product,” she said. “Why would you ask any contractor to take garbage for free?”

After Strand’s comments, the council heard from Casey on the RFP and weighed in with a variety of thoughts, though since the meeting was a work session, no official decisions were made. During the conversation, Casey explained his logic behind some of the elements that came under fire from Strand or raised eyebrows from council members. In particular, he pushed back against the thought that items like spring cleanup, walk-up subscription service and free city property pickup were unusual or extravagant, stating that those services are common in city garbage contracts, including ones he’s observed while working in other municipalities.

“What we’re doing here is giving a monopoly basically to one company,” he said. “We’re giving them a franchise, and I believe that the city should benefit as much as possible [in] that franchise.”

Despite Casey’s remarks, multiple council members expressed discomfort at the free city property hauling, worrying that the service would inflate the contract costs for consumers. Multiple members also raised objections to the prohibition of stopping services to delinquent customers.

“Having been delinquent once, it was very reassuring to know that as soon as I gave them my credit card number they’d be out the next week to pick it up,” Councilman Paul Girard said. “It was a very effective [incentive] to have a garbage can remain full at the end of the driveway.”

Casey told the council the rationale behind that requirement — and the spring cleanup date — was to keep garbage from piling up in yards or being dumped in a ditch under the cover of night – instances that would result in the city being responsible for cleanup anyway.

“It’s really more of an encouragement to try to keep the city as clean as possible,” Casey said.

Husnik raised the most issues with the contract, echoing some of Strand’s concerns like the logistical struggles of a walk-up service and what he referred to as “freebies” like the city property pickup and the special pickup days.

“Either way, the residents will pay for it,” he remarked, suggesting that some of those services be built into the city budget rather than included in the contract, where the costs would be passed on only to residents who have curbside garbage pickup.

Councilwoman Kathy Bystrom asked if the RFP could be more detailed, suggesting that the list of services be itemized with how much each service would contribute to the overall cost. She also wondered if the city could look into the level of demand for a separate receptacle for subscription opt-in organic waste disposal, stating that some residents had asked her about that possibility.

Councilwoman Kelly Monson spoke in favor of the walk-up service and its ability to aid elderly and disabled people. She noted that some parameters might need to be put in place for offering that service to people with very long driveways.

“I think of just the ice and the snow and some of my neighbors that need just a little extra help,” she said.

Bain asked how the city will ask about what items can and can’t be picked up by providers.

“I would like to believe that that is apples to apples against all providers, but I don’t think that’s the case, and I think we should look for some definition around what is picked up, what do they include in their recycling program, prohibited items from their recycling program, just so we’re clear [on] what we’re contracting,” she said.

Casey said he would include that in the final draft of the RFP.

Council members also had a wide variety of more technical questions and recommendations to put into the RFP. Casey told members he would synthesize their preferences into a new document and get it back to them as soon as he could.

Ryan Howard has been the news editor of The Forest Lake Times since 2014.

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