Palm Coast government by now should have determined who its next garbage provider will be for the next five years. A stumble in the bidding process scrambled the timeline. And now, with the city’s contract with Waste Pro set to expire on June 1 and the revised bidding process far from completed, the city has found itself forced to extend the contract by a year, at a steep price to customers: garbage rates will jack up 47 percent, going from $20.36 to $29.97 a month.
The rate will rise, services will decrease. Those service cuts will kick in sooner, in essence allowing Waste Pro to breach the current contract: The Recycling Rewards and the Hazardous Waste Collection programs will be suspended beginning on March 17, two and a half months before the expiration of the existing contract, at least through June 2023. Yard waste will be limited to two cubic yards once a week instead of four. Bulk items will be limited to three cubic yards. The city is also dropping its requirement that Waste Pro vehicles not be older than a certain age, and its requirement that they all be natural-gas vehicles.
Notably, the city will cut its fine amounts in half, even though Waste Pro’s service has been so wanting at times that in May 2021 the city declared the company in breach of its contract and threatened to sever it. (“I don’t think they’ve had any complaints in the last two months at all, so I think they’ve really stepped up their game,” a city spokesperson said today.) Fines had played a large role in scoring Waste Pro lower than another company during an earlier bidding process. By reducing the fine amounts, it also enables the company to better position itself in the coming bid process, a gift to the company.
It is in short an astounding set of concessions by the city, to a company that is not exactly in a position to pack up and leave if it doesn’t get its way on every point.
The Palm Coast City Council is scheduled to review and likely approve the contract extension at a meeting on Feb. 15, when Waste Pro officials will be present to answer questions. Earlier this week, the council was outraged by the city’s lease with the Green Lion at the Palm Harbor golf course, a far less consequential document with no impact on city residents and substantial benefits to the golf course. The Waste Pro contract extension, in contrast, affects every resident and business in the city, and substantially diminishes the city’s ability to police what has been problematic services to residents. It would be surprising if–especially in light of the Green Lion sound and fury–council members were to accept the Waste Pro extension whole. But Waste Pro has been adept at cultivating city council members. (See: “Palm Coast Prepares for New Garbage Contract as Waste Pro starts ‘Inappropriate’ Courtship of Council Members” and “Palm Coast Turns Nasty Against Green Lion Café Lease After 5 Successful Years and Turnaround at Palm Harbor Golf.”)
Flagler County government’s contract with Waste Pro piggy-backs on Palm Coast’s contract for garbage service in the unincoporated areas of the county, and typically would follow along with whatever the city approves. “Yes, we will likely piggyback off of their agreement,” County Administrator Heidi Petito said this afternoon, “however the price many vary from what is being charged in Palm Coast. Currently our costs are a little lower than what Palm Coast pays. If this is approved by the city, we will have to negotiate our price with Waste Pro and bring it back to our Board for approval.”
Rates were certain to go up substantially even if there’d been no bidding flub. The only two companies that last fall had filed a bid to continue Palm Coast’s garbage hauling were Waste Pro and FCC Environmental Services. Waste Pro was proposing a 30 percent cost increase. FCC Environmental’s cost would have been 66 percent higher than what residents and businesses are paying now. (See: “Garbage Rates Will Go Up at Least 30% If Current Service Is Maintained as Palm Coast Draws Only 2 Bids from Haulers.”)
Palm Coast’s internal process actually ranked FCC Environmental first, until Waste Pro, which has been the city’s hauler since 2007, filed a protest. Waste Pro contended that FCC Environmental’s reports on how often and how dearly it was fined for poor service in other cities or counties was misleading. Palm Coast agreed to the extent that it judged its own questions in the bidding document unclear, in essence assuming the error for itself. The city then scrapped the whole bidding process, which had started exactly a year ago, and opted to restart. It’s been preparing the request for proposal, which will not go out until Feb. 23, leaving no time to complete it by June 1.
That placed Palm Coast in a bind. It would not have been easy for the city to secure a different hauler past June 1 on a fill-in basis, as that alone entails its own regulated procedures. Waste Pro knows that, and may explain the first estimated amount the hauler quoted to the city in mid-January, when the city was seeking the extension: $33.80 a month, what would have been a 66 percent increase. It was as if Waste Pro looked at FCC Environmental’s bid, which projected precisely a 66 percent increase, and Palm Coast’s acceptance of that bid, and set its rate accordingly, daring Palm Coast to reject it.
Brian Wintjen, Waste Pro’s Notheast Florida Region vice president, didn’t, of course, cite the FCC Environmental bid as his rationale. Not yet. Rather, in his letter to the city, he essentially cut and pasted headlines about cost increases, blaming Covid, inflation, the accelerating retirement of baby boomers, thus “the need for increased sign-on incentives and the continued need for increased wages and better benefits for those already employed,” in his words.
Rank and file solid waste workers have been notoriously underpaid in a dangerous and thankless industry. Last year, the company raised drivers’ pay from $140 a day, or $36,400 a year, to $175 a day, or $45,500 a year. The mean wage nationally in waste treatment and disposal, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $46,450 in 2020.
Beyond wages, what the letter lacked was actual evidence showing a link between his claims and Waste Pro’s books. The numbers he did provide were tendentious. Inflation has been increasing sharply, but nowhere near 66, or 47, percent. Cynthia Schweers, the city’s director of citizen engagement and the point person on the contract-extension negotiations, informed Wintjen in her response that inflation at most accounted for a 2.3 to 4.1 percent increase per year over the past five years, or a cumulative 18 percent.
Schweers did not address other generalities, exaggerations or inaccuracies in Waste Pro’s letter. The Omicron variant, Wintjen said, has “affected 40 percent of the population,” which is grossly inaccurate: a total of 77 million Americans have been infected in the entire two years of the pandemic, or about 23 percent of the population. Wintjen included a seven-paragraph article from a trade publication about the “impact of omicron on waste collection.” The December article is outdated and its numbers no longer relevant. The omicron wave has largely passed, and has not affected the largely younger population–the demographic of Waste Pro’s rank and file employees–as it has older populations. His vague, unattributed claim that “the latest labor reports indicate that baby boomers are retiring faster than they are being replaced in the workforce” is not supported by a September 21 jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor participation rate is declining. The labor force is not.
Schweers referred back to Waste Pro’s bid last year, which had come in at 31 percent over today’s rates, and proposed a one-year rate of $26.89, along with the suspension of certain programs and the reduction of others. In his Feb. 3 response, Wintjen unholstered the FCC Environmental bid, making the explicit link between that quoted price and Waste Pro’s, and claiming the city was still coming out ahead with Waste Pro’s new figure. “Waste Pro values its long-term relationship with the City of Palm Coast and we welcome the opportunity to continue the partnership,” Wintjen wrote