ATHENS, Ohio — Athens City Council rejected both bids that it received for its 2023 municipal waste and recycling contract on Monday, after a contentious, months-long bidding process.
The rejection of the bids at Monday’s council meeting, from Athens-Hocking Recycling Centers and Rumpke Waste & Recycling, came after Law Director Lisa Eliason warned councilmembers warned that the city could be held liable if it proceeded with either bid, because both bids were incomplete.
City council members, as well as members of the community, had voiced concerns throughout the bidding process. A sizable cost difference between the initial bids has been the core concern, followed by the current and future sustainability efforts of bidders.
The contract is divided into three sections, which may be split between bidders: (A) residential collection, (B) franchise, or business, collection and (C) optional residential composting.
If the city had selected AHRC’s initial bid for the franchise and residential areas with standardized waste cans, the costs for each would have increased 37% from current rates, according to a presentation during a Feb. 13 committee meeting by council member Alan Swank (4th Ward). For customers who pay for two cans (the standard), that represents an increase of $6.47 per month.
If the city had chosen Rumpke’s initial bid for franchise collection and residential areas with standardized waste cans, the franchise customers would have seen a 10% increase, while residential customers would have seen a 7% increase (a two-can increase of $1.59 per month), Swank reported.
According to Swank, dividing the contract — with Rumpke taking over the franchise district and AHRC remaining the residential hauler — franchise collection would not have increased and residential collection with standardized waste cans would have increased 38% — a two-can increase of $7.05 per month.
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The difference in pricing between bids is not the only cost-related issue that has gained attention.
In the Feb. 13 committee meeting, council member Solveig Spjeldnes (1st Ward) read from a 2008 report, “Mergers, Monopolies and Stealth Pricing in the Waste Industry,” expressing her concerns regarding larger companies gaining a monopoly by driving smaller companies out of the market and later raising prices.
Spjeldnes quoted from a portion of the report which reads, “Companies that control landfills are also able to control the collection market because they set the tipping fee for rates — the amount they charge cities, counties and other companies to dump trash in landfills they own — when they use their power to increase tipping fees it allows them to underbid for collection contracts until other companies can no longer compete and are driven out of the market.” The report was published by Consumer Action, the National Association of Consumer Advocates and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Office of Consumer Affairs.
Rumpke acquired the Athens-Hocking Landfill in Nelsonville from Logan-based Kilbarger Construction in 2021.
Chris Chmiel, an Athens County commissioner and former AHRC board chair, has also expressed uncertainty about a potential monopoly by Rumpke, which describes itself on its website as “one of the nation’s largest waste and recycling companies.”
“There’s nobody bidding on these contracts, and then when no one bids on the contracts, the prices may go up,” Chmiel said in an interview. “I think that’s the biggest concern when there’s no competition and Rumpke’s the only game in town because they bought everybody else out.”
Rumpke Director of Corporate Communications Amanda Pratt said that while competition within local markets does drive down cost, Rumpke is a large company, which “enables us to pull our resources and find ways to minimize customer cost when possible.” Pratt added that southeast Ohio sees robust competition among hauling companies.
Contention also swirled around perceived disparities between the proposals’ sustainability measures, for both vehicles and waste, and the city’s sustainability plans.
Reduction and diversion of waste, Athens’ desire to be a “zero waste community” and emission impacts were among the concerns raised.
The city of Athens has a sustainability plan from 2018 that lists goals for 2020 and 2030. The plan includes specific goals for waste and recycling as well as for methane emissions. Municipal landfills are a large source of such emissions.
Rumpke’s sustainability efforts include about 500 trucks across four states (Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana) that are powered by compressed natural gas. In its hometown of Cincinnati, some of the compressed natural gas comes from methane collected from Rumpke landfills, according to the company.
Rumpke also attempts to make those vehicles available in communities where compressed natural gas is available from other sources. However, while compressed natural gas does release fewer emissions than traditional fossil fuels, it shouldn’t be counted as a clean energy source, according to European NGO Transport & Environment.
Differences in organic waste, which makes up 24% of landfills, were also expressed.
AHRC has a composting facility, which opened in 2015, and has offered an optional composting service to residential customers since 2020. If the city awards Rumpke the contract, Rumpke would collect compost, but would have to contract with AHRC to process it.
Council member Sam Crowl, who is also Ohio University’s director of sustainability, believes that both bidders have demonstrated that they can collect solid waste and recyclables.
“We are a community that values our operations in a way that the other communities in our region may not,” Crowl said. “Our sustainability goals are key parts of the way we do business.”
At the Feb. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting, Crowl and members of the public noted AHRC’s numerous partnerships and connections with local organizations, including Ohio University, Rural Action, the Athens Hocking Solid Waste District and the Sustainable Ohio Public Energy Council.
Speakers expressed greater support for AHRC’s bid than Rumpke’s at the Feb. 13 committee meeting. Among the speakers in favor were representatives of Rural Action, the Sugarbush Foundation, Habitat for Humanity Southeast Ohio and the Athens Environment and Sustainability Commission.
Just one individual who spoke expressed concerns about the economic impact of potentially high price increases.
Pratt, the Rumpke communications director, responded that the company is “very disappointed” that its bid was rejected.
“We’re awaiting the new bid specs and the new request for bid,” Pratt said in an interview. “And we’ll take a look at it and we’ll go through and we’ll definitely very much try to customize the services and offer the details that the city is requesting.”
Law Director Lisa Eliason suggested that the council should pass an ordinance authorizing City Service Safety Director Andy Stone to advertise and accept new bids, rather than having the council do it.
The suggestion was echoed by Stone as well as council members Swank and Spjeldnes.
Stone also asked the council to define what “best” means to better incorporate the council’s desires in the rebid documents. The contract documents currently state that the city seeks a bidder that “effectively meets the city’s operational and sustainability goals,” and is in the “best interests of the city” — but does not define “best.”
Service from AHRC officially ends June 30. With the service end date in sight, Stone suggested approaching a negotiation on an extension for the current contract. Two one-year extensions are permitted at the same price as the current contract.
However, Stone expressed concern that AHRC may not be able to continue service at the current price, even with the available extension in the contract. AHRC has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
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