Ada County's garbage hauling contract with Allied Waste probably doesn't light a fire in the belly of most county residents.
But in a Jan. 23 blog post on the subject, Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman had harsh words about the contract and Allied. The contract is "essentially the granting of a monopoly by county government for what is now a mandatory service in unincorporated Ada County," she wrote. County landfill and Allied Waste representatives told the commission that it would probably cost less to extend Allied's contract for 10 years than it would to bid the contract out. "To me, this sounds like extortion: Give it to us, or we'll jack up your prices," Ullman wrote.
Allied Waste's last contract with Ada County actually expired in September 2008 after county staff forgot the contract was on a fiscal year instead of a calendar year, assuming it was due for renewal in January. Allied Waste had been hauling the county's trash for months without a contract, counting on the good faith of the county to pay for its services.
But the waste contract wasn't renewed in January either. The commissioners agreed to table the issue for a month while Ullman checked with other trash haulers to gauge their interest in bidding for the contract. So far, four are interested in addition to Allied Waste, according to another post on Ullman's blog.
Boise Weekly wanted to know why Ullman felt so strongly about the garbage contract and whether she was concerned about increased costs if it were to go out to bid, so we called her and left a message asking about it. Ada County spokesman Rich Wright returned the call on Ullman's behalf, despite the fact that she campaigned against using tax dollars for a county P.R. department.
"She's taken the position where she is not going to interact with the media directly," Wright explained. Wright said that while commissioners Fred Tilman and Rick Yzaguirre will do interviews, Ullman wants reporters to attend public meetings to hear what she has to say. He suggested trying to ask a question at the meeting.
Ada County Commission Chairman Fred Tilman said in an interview that other trash haulers have a hard time competing with Allied because of large up-front costs to start trash service in the area. This is one area in which competition doesn't tend to drive down price. In fact, Tilman said, the City of Boise did a study the last time it put a trash contract out to bid and found that it cost more to bid it out than it would have to simply renegotiate and renew the contract.
"It's not uncommon at all for these kind of franchise agreements to be renewed as opposed to put up for proposals every year," he said.
So BW went to a commission meeting in which the contract was being discussed and tried to ask Ullman a question during the meeting recess and immediately following the meeting. Ullman declined to answer. Boise Weekly submitted its questions to Wright so he could act as intermediary. Ullman again declined.
Two days later, in response to some questions about her media policy from an Idaho Statesman editor, Ullman changed her policy and engaged in a little trash talk on her blog: "I will also answer questions (yes, from the media—even the Boise Weekly despite their routinely inaccurate reporting) right here on this blog." And three days after we posed the questions she responded on her blog.
"This contract should be re-bid because Allied has had it for 14 years," she wrote.
Asked why Allied had been operating without a contract, Ullman asked county staff to explain the situation during the commission's next business meeting. During that meeting, she voted with Tilman and Yzaguirre to extend Allied's contract until September to give everyone enough time to bid out the next contract.
Rachele Klein, business development manager for Allied Waste, was unconcerned by Ullman's intent to put the next trash contract up for bid. "Having multiple municipal contracts, we often hear that," she said. "It's sort of the nature of good business."