Next month, the Le Center City Council will make a vote expected to define garbage and recycling in the city for the next 20 years.
On Wednesday, Jan. 14, the council held a workshop meeting to compare the costs and benefits of continuing to operate the city’s own recycling center and waste management program against contracting a private service for both. The council began considering a private service after Le Sueur County terminated its involvement with and funding for the Le Center recycling facility, in order to establish several county-wide recycling services in Waterville, Le Sueur and Le Center with the end goal of making recycling more accessible.
Le Sueur County hopes the changes will benefit residents across the county, but it left Le Center with decisions to make. The city currently picks up garbage, while residents are asked to drop off recycling at the center in town.
At an October public hearing, residents were split down the middle on the issue — whether the city should continue operating recycling/waste management or bring in a private entity to handle it. With no clear majority, the council decided to forego a second public hearing and instead evaluate the costs and benefits of each option in a workshop meeting before they take a vote at the Feb. 11 council meeting. While a hearing won’t be dedicated to the issue, residents can bring their comments to the council at the February meeting.
At the workshop, the council estimated that operating the recycling center and continuing the city’s waste management pickup would cost each household $116.55 annually over the next 20 years, about half the estimated annual cost, $240 per household, if the city were to choose a contractor.
The costs of running the recycling center
The first option for the city is to continue the recycling system as usual. Le Center residents would continue to drop off their recycling at the facility One of the few changes that took place in January is that the facility will only be usable by city residents. County residents who used to drop off their recycling at the facility have the option to dispose of their recycling at county shops in Waterville and Le Sueur and will be able to do drop-offs in Le Center once the new county site opens.
Another change that’s being considered by the council is an additional four-hour evening shift. One of the main issues city residents took with the recycling center at a public hearing in October was that it was only open for five hours on Saturday mornings.
“That was one complaint I heard that was a very valid complaint. ‘Oh, I can’t get down there on Saturdays.’” said Mayor Josh Frederickson. “So now you would have the option of say, Tuesday or Wednesday nights or whenever.”
The $6,000 cost of a new evening shift was one of the many additional costs factored into the estimated $88,580 it would require for the city to keep running the recycling center annually. When split between the 760 households in Le Center, the $88,580 cost amounts to $116 per household.
One of the new charges would be for a new garbage truck. Based on a high estimate of $250,000 a year, it would take roughly 20 years for the city to pay it off.
Other new costs include an $8,000 annual processing fee from LJP Waste Solutions, which disposes of Le Center’s recycling. The fee would raise the cost of LJP’s services to $17,000 a year for a haul every week or $12,000 for a haul every other week.
The city would also pay $27,000 more annually than in previous years due to the facility no longer being funded or shared by the county.
Despite the added expenses, the city found they could still run a profit of $16,000 with revenues from the $5 solid waste fee and sales from blue bags. The council also considered raising the waste fee to $6 to bring solid waste profits back to a similar level from previous years.
The costs of a private contractor
The second option available to the city is to hire a contractor to haul garbage and recycling rather than have people go out to the plant and drop it off. Le Center received two bidders: LJP Waste Solutions and Waste Management. LJP offered curbside pickup at $12 per month for garbage and $4.82 for recycling, while Waste Management bid $13.95 monthly for garbage and $9.95 for recycling.
To estimate how much hiring a contractor would cost, the city took an average of the two bids and assumed the contractor’s rates would increase 5% per year for the next 20 years. Under these assumptions, the city determined that it would cost $240 per household annually if the city allowed a contractor to service the area.
“That’s a factor that we don’t know, but for every garbage company out there, it’s not a flat fee.” Frederickson said. “We can’t foresee what those negotiated numbers are going to be 20 years in the future. We can only deal with the factual numbers we have right now.”
“From a dollars and cents standpoint, the numbers are what they are,” Frederickson continued. “Can we tweak things a little bit one way or the other? Sure. We could try and negotiate a lesser annual increase based on what the garbage company is, but if you’ve ever worked with a garbage company at work, I know I do, they pretty much got you over the barrel. The only leverage you truly do have is weighing one against the other.”
While the councilors did not say which way they would vote, they did point out several downsides in hiring a contractor beyond cost. Councilor Nathan Hintz expressed concern over the fact that each resident would need curbies for pickup, which he and other residents considered an eyesore. Even with an ordinance, he believed it wouldn’t be enough to stop people from leaving them out in their yards.
“Le Center is a very nice looking town for the most part,” said Hintz. “People keep their lawns neat and trimmed and now you’re adding 760 curbies plus recycling.”
In addition, apartment buildings would need dumpsters or storage areas for curbies which could increase costs for tenants.
“Outside of the convenience, I don’t see a lot of benefit to it,” said Frederickson.