Tuesday, Sep 17 2013 06:00 AM

Now and Then : Trash collection in Golden Hills; what's it all about?

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Claudia Elliott

There has been some controversy about the plan of Golden Hills Community Services District to take on responsibility for trash collection. The district's Board of Directors in June took action to give Benz Sanitation five years notice of this and also to spend what may be up to $100,000 to have a Bay Area firm handle the process of constructing a bid process (RFP) and related matters.

All of this is despite the fact that less than three years ago the district took a vote and found that a majority of residents responding did not want the CSD to take on trash collection and that the district told those voting that even if they did vote in favor they would have another chance to vote.

On Monday, after the deadline for this week's edition, the Board of Directors of the Greater Tehachapi Economic Development Council (of which I am a member), was to consider taking a position on this matter, for whatever that might be worth. I let members of that body know that I would abstain from voting, but I do have an opinion which I will share here.

My concern is not for Benz Sanitation, I imagine the company can take care of itself. But as it happens I do recall clearly the evening many years ago when Paul Benz stood up before the Tehachapi City Council and told members he could solve their trash problem.

In those days, the city operated its own trash service with a truck that seemed to break down and two men who made their way about the city hoisting the cans up to empty them. Just about everyone had multiple 30-gallon metal trash cans, and they'd be spread out all over the alley after the trash guys came by.

All of city government operated out of the building that currently houses the police department (with room to spare for the Sheriff's Sub-station) and the council met in a small room with about a dozen chairs lined up for the audience. Everyone was so close that there was no need for microphones.

Benz proposed providing trash collection for the city, and the rest is history.

I don't remember exactly when that meeting was, but by the time I returned to Tehachapi three years ago after an absence of 29 years, Benz was well established. Through the years as the state required a reduction in what is taken to the landfill, Benz added a recycling program. The company grew, too, with the addition of propane and porta-potty service.

Success sometimes breeds admiration and sometimes contempt. Often it inspires competition and in the propane and porta-potty sector, Benz has local competition. But Tehachapi has remained "Benz country" for trash collection with the city continuing the relationship begun all those years ago while Kern County has overseen a contract for the unincorporated area, although not requiring curbside trash collection.

But, as I said, my concern is not for Benz.

What I wonder is this: Is it appropriate for government to be the "middle man" between the customer and the provider of a service, such as trash collection and is this particular government -- Golden Hills CSD -- being honest with the public?

I think the answer to both questions is no.

There may be good reasons for government to get involved in "franchising" services such as utilities, trash collection and cable television. There is a range of arguments for and against such arrangements, but in my mind it is only appropriate when government adds some value to the deal and takes no more than is needed to cover its cost.

When the action was taken in June, Golden Hills said it's concern was that its residents were paying a higher rate than paid by residents of the City of Tehachapi. Golden Hills believes that it can negotiate a lower rate for residents, without making trash collection mandatory, as well as recoup the $100,000 or so that it may pay for the RFP service and keep 10 percent for itself.

For that to be possible, I have to believe that either Benz has been making a magnificent and unjustified profit off the people of Golden Hills or that some other company is going to be willing to undercut the local guy in order to gain a foothold in the Tehachapi Valley.

As to action by the Golden Hills board to move forward with trash collection after telling residents that it would honor their vote in 2010, I'm scratching my head.

According to Director Ed Kennedy, this is something residents wanted. But a review of minutes of the board since that vote does not support this. And when Kennedy was asked in June 2011 if the district would take over the sewer system when privately owned Golden Hills Sanitation went bankrupt, he said no, because residents voted against that.

If there is a pressing need in Golden Hills, in my opinion it's wastewater treatment, not trash collection. Potential groundwater contamination and the sorry state of Tom Sawyer Lake are among the issues.

Of course, in addition to the lack of public support in Golden Hills, solving the sewage problem is a very expensive proposition. Perhaps if Golden Hills were able to generate funds from a franchise fee for trash collection, the district would be in a better economic position to deal with some of the other issues facing the area. But if that's the plan, no one has shared it.

Coming up on Sept. 23, Golden Hills has scheduled a public meeting concerning the trash collection contract. Waiting until three months after an action is taken to involve the public flies in the face of responsible open government practices, but that's the situation.

It's hard to predict how this will turn out.

CLAUDIA ELLIOTT is editor of the Tehachapi News. Send email to celliott@tehachapinews.com or call 823-6360.

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