Editorial: 'Trust, but verify' garbage issues

City administrators in Rockford have issued their anemic and inadequate answers to important questions raised by Ald. Dave Johnson (R-4) and The Rock River Times’ Feb. 23 article “Garbage contracts stink.”

Important questions exist concerning how Rockford and Loves Park verify they are receiving the favored collection and/or disposal rate for residential garbage. Quite disturbingly, the questions remain largely unanswered. Meanwhile, nearly all local public officials and other Rockford media stared like deer in headlights when they failed to follow up on these issues concerning millions of taxpayer dollars.

As the garbage issues continue to careen down the road of spending, Rockford Mayor Doug Scott’s administration horns blared better than Loves Park Mayor Darryl Lindberg in his response to the garbage concerns. However, that isn’t saying much since no known response was issued by Lindberg.

Scott’s administrators wrote in response to Johnson’s question about verifying the lowest rates: “It was not intended that this [part of the contract] clause require ongoing verification.” Too bad, because Scott and the City Council myopically extended this no-bid contract until 2013 under the auspices that it was the best taxpayers could achieve—they were very likely wrong, if the garbage industry in northern Illinois is truly a free-enterprise system.

Rockford’s past problems with garbage contract services extend back to at least 1956. It’s long past due for an outside government agency to thoroughly examine the garbage industry in northern Illinois, which would include, but not be limited to, Rockford, Loves Park, Rochelle, Freeport, Princeton, Harvard, Marengo, DeKalb and Streator—areas served by trash companies owned by Loves Park-based William Charles Ltd.

Charles J. Howard of Machesney Park is head of the William Charles empire, which includes Rock River Disposal Services; Winnebago Reclamation; Rockford Blacktop Construction; Rochelle Waste Disposal; Marengo Disposal; Allen Disposal; Gill’s Freeport Disposal; Northern Illinois Disposal; and Dean’s G and B Disposal. William Charles also owns a large number of other companies that range from truck sales to environmental clean-up services.

Rockford contracts with Rock River Disposal and Winnebago Reclamation for residential garbage collection and disposal. Loves Park contracts only with Rock River Disposal for residential collection. However, Loves Park’s residential and some of its commercial garbage is dumped into Pagel Pit, which was once operated by Rockford Blacktop. Winnebago Reclamation now operates that facility. Howard still controls the landfill. Under the existing system, the problem with enforcing the favored rate clause in the contracts is both cities have no way to compare and verify the municipality is receiving the lowest possible rate for collection and/or disposal.

Instead, Rockford has to trust that Winnebago Reclamation is charging the city for the correct weight of garbage that is dumped in Pagel Pit. The tons of trash dumped in the landfill determine the amount Rockford taxpayers pay for collection and disposal of residential garbage. The reason Rockford has to trust Winnebago Reclamation is because no government employee is on site at Pagel Pit to identify and count trucks and verify the source and weight of garbage, as was once done in the 1970s.

We strongly suggest, after an investigation of the northern Illinois garbage industry is completed, a street-smart, well-educated, state-paid “scalemaster” be placed at Pagel Pit until the contract with Winnebago Reclamation and Rock River Disposal expires in 2013, is terminated or renegotiated. Why? Because after reporting at least two severe problems with Rockford’s garbage contracts since October 2002, we believe there is no alternative to obtain the truth and verify that residents and taxpayers are receiving the best bargain.

Mayor Scott’s response to how the city verifies that other municipalities, residential and/or commercial garbage isn’t being billed to Rockford taxpayers was there are two field inspectors who “monitor” garbage operations in the city. Exactly what that statement means isn’t clear, but what is clear is no independent inspector is at Pagel Pit to verify the source and weight of the garbage as it actually hits the dump.

I urge all cities that have garbage contracts with William Charles-owned companies to adopt President Ronald Reagan’s credo concerning nuclear missile treaties: “Trust, but verify.” Right now, all we have is the trust part of that philosophy.

Rockford Police Department officials conducted an investigation of Rockford’s residential garbage hauling and dumping contract in the mid-1970s, and issued a report in March 1975 titled: “Investigation of grand theft by deception.” However, the investigation was too limited to thoroughly examine the dynamics of the commercial and residential garbage industry in northern Illinois, which may be something less than a free market.

In other words, the time has come for Loves Park City Attorney Paul S. Nicolosi, Rockford Legal Director Ron Schultz, Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli and U.S. Attorney John McKenzie to ask federal and/or state officials to launch a thorough investigation of the northern Illinois garbage industry.

The investigation should be similar to one conducted in the mid-1990s by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in New York. The consortium of legal officials should also push for a garbage commission, which former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented to oversee that city’s garbage industry. New York was successful in significantly lowering garbage rates by introducing reforms that allowed more competition.

As The Rock River Times’ Feb. 23 article suggests, we badly need such reforms because under the existing system, there is no way to verify residents and taxpayers are paying the lowest possible rate. As evidence, we reported “Rockford may have been able to dump its trash at Orchard Hills Landfill in New Milford at a cost between $14.75 to $25 per ton if bids were sought.”

Last year, Rockford paid $31.72 per ton for disposal at Pagel Pit.

Scott’s administrators disputed this price range when they wrote: “The preliminary proposal offered in the confidence of a competitive negotiation process did not reflect the numbers cited in the article.” The Rock River Times’ sources stand by the disposal price range stated in the article.

It should also be noted that no representatives from Orchard Hills have denied the price range cited in the Feb. 23 article. This means Rockford taxpayers will be paying millions more for residential garbage disposal until 2013, because city administrators failed to insist the contract be put out for bid. Why?

That answer must come from an independent, federal and/or state investigation of the northern Illinois garbage industry. State officials in New Jersey conducted an investigation in 1969 of that state’s garbage industry, which led to insight and reforms. However, no known report has been issued by state or federal investigators about the garbage industry in Illinois. We think that time has come.

Meantime, we suggest all municipalities that have garbage contracts with any William Charles subsidiary company meet to compare contracts. Such a meeting may lead to insight as to how to enforce the favored rate clause in their contracts. With all the talk about regionalism and cooperation among government agencies, here is a golden opportunity to do something positive for residents and taxpayers that applies to a basic service.

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