Monday, February 18, 2008

Clean up the mess; Times Picayune: November 29, 2007 Thursday

The city of New Orleans has made an utter mess of its deals with two trash-hauling companies, signing expensive contracts that don't adequately address the needs of residents who are still cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina.

The contracts refer to unlimited collection of bulky waste, but the city is not holding the companies to that standard. Complicating matters further, the City Council passed an ordinance at the adminstration's request last April that spells out an overly narrow definition of bulky waste.

The Nagin administration needs to renegotiate the contracts with Richard's Disposal and Metro Disposal to get a better deal, one that gives the city its money's worth and doesn't leave residents wondering what they can put out on the curb. The city also may need to revisit the ordinance and fix the definition of bulky waste so that residents get the service they were promised and for which they are footing the bill.

New Orleans is paying roughly double what it spent on trash collection before the storm and more than twice what Jefferson Parish is paying now per capita for more comprehensive service. It doesn't make sense for New Orleans to pay so much more -- a combined $24.6 million -- if the city isn't actually getting more for the money.

That something more could be the "unlimited bulky waste," including demolition matter, that is mentioned in the contracts. But City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields maintains that nothing in the contracts suggests that they were intended to take over storm debris removal.

Even so, the broad, vague language in the contracts leaves room for question. Several companies decided not to bid because they said the unlimited bulky waste provision made it too difficult to estimate costs.

Redoing the contracts would make it possible to spell out in detail what the companies are expected to pick up when it comes to bulky waste. That's something that would benefit the trash haulers as well as the city since the seven-year contracts extend past Mayor Nagin's term. A future administration could have a different interpretation of the contracts' demands.

Clearly, New Orleans still needs more extensive service when it comes to storm debris. Since FEMA quit paying the Army Corps of Engineers to haul away debris in September, waste piles have been springing up across the city. People who are trying to restore their storm-damaged homes have been forced to pay private haulers, and that's not an acceptable situation.

Mayor Nagin's solution is to spend $1.5 million on a separate debris-removal contract, and certainly the city needs to do something to remove the debris and lift the burden from homeowners. City Council President Arnie Fielkow wants to press FEMA to resume paying for the pickup, and that's worth a try.

However, the city shouldn't at the same time continue paying Richards and Metro so much money for routine service. The issue here isn't the performance of the haulers; by all accounts they've done a good job. But a recovering city with pressing needs and limited resources can't afford to overpay for services.

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