City might rethink contract for landfill

Last week, with three of seven members absent, Columbia City Council voted 3-1 to extend the city's landfill contract with the Houston-based company Waste Management.

Since then, local competitor Bruce Loveless has been talking with council members, saying he could save the city $400,000 over the life of the five-year contract if only the city would let him bid on it. And council members who were absent last week have complained about the contract, too.

Now, the city is poised to do something Mayor Bob Coble says hasn't been done in his 20 years as mayor: reconsider an earlier vote.

It's unclear how that would happen. City codes say the council follows Robert's Rules of Order. To reconsider a motion, the rules state someone from the prevailing side has to ask for it to be reconsidered within a certain time period.

Coble along with council members E.W. Cromartie and Sam Davis voted for the contract extension. Council member Tameika Isaac Devine voted against it. Council members Daniel Rickenmann, Kirkman Finlay and Belinda Gergel were absent.

Columbia attorney Steve Benjamin has picked up on the issue and used it in his campaign for mayor. Wednesday morning, on a live television program, Benjamin called out council members for not sending out the contract for competitive bidding. Benjamin said on WACH Fox's morning news show that the city could use the savings to add staffing to two city fire stations targeted by budget cuts.

"This issue came up as a crystal clear opportunity when the city can save some costs," Benjamin said. "I thought it should be looked at."

Finlay, who also is running for mayor and was absent from the first vote, said he supports sending the contract out for a competitive bid.

"I think the minute somebody has injected into the discussion that they can do it more cheaply, if we as a council do not investigate that, we are going back to the ways that got us in trouble," Finlay said, referring to the city's recent financial troubles. "We've got to try to save every nickel we can. If we don't ask for lower prices, I just don't think we're going to get them."

Five years ago, the city agreed to a five-year contract with Waste Management for disposing of the city's waste. Included in the contract was an option for the city to extend the contract for an additional five years.

The price started out at $11.46 per ton of garbage, but increased to $12.44 per ton because of inflation. City employees collect an average of 35,000 tons to 50,000 tons a year that must be disposed of, according to Public Works Director Missy Gentry. The city does not have its own landfill.

Loveless & Loveless offered to dispose of the city's waste for $14.50 per ton five years ago. But because of the struggling economy, owner Bruce Lovelace said he's willing to lower the rates in order to get the city's business.

"I guarantee to bid it less than the rate they have it right now," Loveless said.

Randall Essick, South Carolina spokesman for Waste Management, said he has been trying to convince City Council members that renewing their contract, not reopening the bid process, is the best option for the city.

"We think we offer more value in renewing the contract to the city," he said. "But at the end of the day, we respect the city and whatever city officials decide to do."

Gentry recommended council members extend the contract for an additional five years because it guaranteed the city a low rate. Reopening the bidding process is a gamble, she said, because the bids could come back higher.

"Our costs will go up," she said. "We can't afford to pay more."

The public works department has had its budget cut by millions of dollars this year. In September, the department stopped collecting garbage from Dumpster-like containers, meaning apartment complexes and businesses that used them have to pay a private company to do it instead.

Earlier this year, council members briefly discussed charging residents a fee for garbage pick up, but later abandoned the idea. Residents pay for garbage pickup out of their property taxes, but it is not a specific line item on tax bills.