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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 04:55 am

Enough trash talk

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If talk picked up trash, Mayor Tim Davlin would have the town clean by now. All year he has been talking to neighborhood associations about his big plans to reform Springfield's municipal waste system. This summer he convened a series of meetings with landlords and neighborhood activists. I attended as a representative of The Springfield Project, impressed that the mayor would spend so much time on this one issue. We talked and talked. When speaking in public, Davlin would say he spends 10 percent of his time on the trash issue, and never has anything been so time-consuming and frustrating.

So far the mayor has nothing to show for all of his time and talk, and he's been quiet on the subject since his meeting a month ago with Lake Area Disposal Service, which does 60 to 65 percent of the residential trash-disposal business in Springfield. That's when Lake Area -- ominously, through its attorney -- told the mayor no.

No, the company won't go along with the idea of billing for garbage service on City Water, Light and Power bills. That, Lake Area says, would interfere with its relationship with customers, might cut down on the number of service plans it could offer, and could keep it from tracking its customer base. Proponents thought it would bring the company more customers from among the thousands who don't now have trash service, and cut down on billing and collections costs. But those arguments were rubbish to the dominant waste hauler.

Billing for trash pickup on the utility bill is the solution that Davlin, neighborhood activists, and landlords hoped would allow Springfield to preserve Lake Area and the rest of the city's unwieldy system of multiple private haulers while at the same time getting everybody signed up for trash service. When the city did a computer comparison of residence addresses with waste hauler customer lists, it came up with 7,000 addresses that didn't match up. Rather than refine the search by eliminating vacant houses and apartments with commercial service, the city has been using an estimate of 4,000 households without trash service. Whether 4,000 or 7,000, they are the major source of alley piles, street litter, fly dumping, and filling of others' trash bins. It would take a big garbage-police force to chase them all, and they would still be hard to catch.

What we envisioned was a billing system similar to the one that works so well in Rockford. There, residents pay for trash service on their water bills. Any partial payments are applied to the trash bill first, then to the water bill. If water payments become delinquent, the water and trash services are shut off and the dwelling becomes uninhabitable. With this system, everybody has trash service and everybody pays.

The difference is that in Rockford, the city contracts with one private hauler; in Springfield, the mayor envisioned preserving the aspect that allows residents to pick their own haulers. Proponents of multiple private haulers in Springfield say putting residential trash service out for competitive bids would mean higher prices, but this isn't necessarily true. In Rockford, residents pay $38.60 a quarter, which is comparable to rates in Springfield. But for their money Rockford residents receive not only recycling and basic trash removal but also weekly pickup of tree limbs, yard waste, and bulky items such as furniture and mattresses. The city goes out for bids every five years.

Lake Area and the State Journal-Register got their heads together and proposed that, instead of changing the billing system, the city should just require residents to show proof of garbage service before utilities can be connected. That would work fine for the first week or so, until those who don't want to pay for trash service have a chance to cancel. A city-sponsored enforcement effort using big fines, also advocated by Lake Area/SJ-R, might get some trash truants to sign up for a few weeks when the heat is on. But as long as service is easy to cancel, law enforcement can't solve the problem of thousands of residences without trash pickup.

After all the talking, Mayor Davlin knows as much as anybody about how to reform the trash system. But he has yet to make a formal proposal. Now that his attempt to be nice has been rejected, the mayor should step forward with a plan that puts the city's interests first. We understand his fear of lawsuits, but Lake Area shouldn't have the last word. It's time for the mayor to haul trash or get off the can.

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