Steubenville council talking trash

STEUBENVILLE — Councilman Craig Petrella figures there’s money to be made picking up commercial trash or private haulers wouldn’t be sending trucks from as far away as New Cumberland and East Liverpool to service the city businesses currently under contract to them.

He just can’t convince anyone else on council it makes sense for Steubenville’s cash-strapped sanitation department to buy new trucks and large receptacles and hire the additional workers needed to provide the service, particularly since they can’t be sure when, if at all, the city would recoup its initial investment.

Council members made it clear at a utility committee meeting Tuesday they’re leaning toward taking the city out of the dumpster business altogether, potentially shaving about $110,000 a year off the sanitation department’s bottom line. Cost reduction is crucial, since budget projections show the department mired in red ink by 2023.

“Do you think (the private haulers) would travel 20 miles or more and not make money doing it?” Petrella, the city’s 2nd Ward councilman, asked. “And we’re right here.

“They’re making money because they put the money into equipment,”Petrella added.

The city currently has about 113 commercial dumpster accounts, Sanitation Superintendent Bob Baird said. About twice that many businesses contract with private haulers who, at some point, offered them collections at a reduced rate to get them to sign on, he said.

City code stipulates that all garbage generated within city limits should be collected by city crews, although “industrial accounts” — that’s businesses with 50 or more employees, typically national chain stores — can request an exemption, Baird said. Over the years, prior councils consented to literally dozens of businesses signing up with private haulers, regardless of whether those businesses met the employee threshold spelled out in the sanitation ordinance.

“Our ordinance says a business with 50 or more employees” gets a choice, Baird said. “If it does not, it’s a commercial account and as the ordinance is written today, is has to do business with the city.”

To recapture that business now means council would have to tell those same businesses they can’t renew their current contracts with the private haulers, something 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons said he’s loathe to do.

“I’ve looked at the financials,” Timmons said. “It’s pretty clear to me that we should get out of it. And, I sure don’t want to be telling a business they have to go with the city — they should have a choice which entity they use.”

But Petrella has questioned how the city’s rates for commercial customers compare to the rates being charged by the private haulers, and whether the private haulers are collecting and paying the city income tax.

“How much do private haulers pay in city income taxes, and do they pay?” he asked. “They should, but do they? They’re here more than 21 days a year, then their employees should be paying the tax.”

He also contends the higher volume of waste generated would get the city a better rate at the landfill. He’s said previously he figures the reduced landfill rates, plus the broader customer base paying into the system, would mean the city could see a return on its investment in as little as three or four years.

“I’m not going to change anybody’s mind,” Petrella said. “(But) the basis of economic development is economic retention — once you have economic retention, you can get economic development and expand.”

Finance Director Dave Lewis said the cash outlay to expand dumpster pickups could be a half-million dollars or more.

“I think we need to do one of two things,” Lewis said. “We either have to be all in or all out when it comes to the commercial dumpsters.”

City Manager Jim Mavromatis said Steubenville is “clearly behind the eight ball, and it’s not anyone here’s fault.”

“If you want to do it, you’ve got to give me the tools to do the job,” he cautioned. “You can’t just snap your fingers and say ‘do it.'”

At one time the sanitation department had built up about a $5 million surplus to help pay anticipated landfill closure costs. The city, however, struck a deal with Ohio EPA to instead use oil and gas revenue to cover those costs, and during a period of years the nearly $5 million cash cushion that had accumulated in the fund was whittled away — much of it was used to shore up the city’s ailing water and sewage accounts, though some was spent to tear down dilapidated buildings.

Prior councils also chose to hold the line on rates for the past decade — at one point even reducing them, even though they added services.

“The only thing keeping us running is the surplus,” Baird said. “And the surplus has been eaten up by demolitions and other operations.

“We’re approaching the moment where we will not have cash on hand. We’re approaching the moment where we’re not going to have a card to play, we’re not going to have an option,” Baird added.

Mavromatis said the department’s surplus funds “should have stayed there and been spent on sanitation,” regardless of how the public perceived it. Mavromatis said a multi-million fund balance may be “bad optics,” but the state says there’s no rule against it.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna pointed out the city would have to raise its rates “just to bring us back to where we were.”

“And we still wouldn’t have the money to buy the packers and pay for the extra manpower we’d need,” Villamagna said.

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn agreed, saying they need to reduce operating costs for the cash-strapped sanitation department.