Trash and Cash

Small, independent garbage haulers have always had to battle the big companies, but now they have a new foe: the City of Miami

In the long run, one small hauler notes, it is probably inevitable that the majors will knock the little guys out, through acquisitions or competitive attrition. "But to knock him out without giving him a chance," he says, "that's wrong."

It's the morning before Thanksgiving. An angry group of more than a dozen haulers has assembled around a conference table on the second floor of the administrative building of the city's Department of Solid Waste. The gathering is just the first skirmish in what could be a protracted war. Although the language of the moment is couched in accommodation, compromise does not seem to be in the air.

A number of those gathered here today are members of the Dade Waste Haulers Council, a trade group for small haulers. Approximately twenty private haulers work within Miami city limits now, and about half that number are here today. A lawyer for the association is also present. David McWilliams has come; so have representatives from Waste Management, Browning-Ferris, and Republic.

Assistant City Manager Raul Martinez, a former Miami deputy police chief, opens the meeting. He admits that after 24 years on the force, garbage is new territory for him. He's only been on the job a few weeks. The franchise plan, he assures the haulers, is not a done deal. "We want input from you," he tells them. "If this is going to happen, what would you recommend? If at some point we decide it's not worth it, we'll go back to the commission and say it's not worth it."

The haulers seated around the table voice their concerns: What about their existing private contracts that the city's action would nullify? How will they be able to bid successfully against the majors? The new districts will be too large, and their own resources too small. And just what are the city's gripes about cleanliness and delinquent fees? Tell us now, they plead; we can work it out. If the majors win, they'll control de facto monopolies, the small haulers say, and businesses throughout Miami will inevitably suffer higher costs.

"If the decision is to go to a franchise, we cannot allow the lack of competition to drive up prices," Martinez acknowledges.

Luciano Isla, the attorney for the small haulers, expresses skepticism that his clients' comments will be considered in the decision-making process, but he pledges to cooperate. "We will work with you in this process up until the time we think it will [no longer] benefit both the city and us," he says guardedly.

Finally a representative from Republic addresses city staff in an attempt to end the proceedings. The meeting has turned into a "debating society," he complains, but is practically shouted down. The small haulers turn their attention back to the staffers and threaten to fight the franchise plan in the courts. (One hauler says later: "Where I come from, they call it racketeering. Here they call it franchising.")

Martinez announces a nineteen-day comment period, after which the city commission will hold a workshop to discuss the franchise plan. And as the meeting draws to a close, he issues a pointed advisement to the haulers: Respond or not, as you choose, but the process will continue. David McWilliams did send in his own comments. He described ways Miami could increase cleanliness and enforcement, and then ended on a tougher note. "I constantly get calls or hear about cases of injustices by customers held captive in the monopoly/franchise in their municipality," he wrote. "They want a way out, but the arrogant, price-gouging franchise holder has them in a stranglehold with nowhere to go."

There was more at stake than his livelihood, McWilliams tried to explain. "[F]ranchising the waste industry has led to a monopoly environment that promotes unfair business practices for all concerned. They absolutely kill competition and the free market. They restrain trade and promote price-fixing. They endanger small and minority businesses from starting up because they monopolize entire markets, making it possible for only those with millions or billions in public money to succeed. They promote greed and go against everything that America is supposed to be about."

Of the seven other haulers who responded, all but one rejected the plan. Even Waste Management, which has worked to build up accounts in Miami, refused to support the proposal. "[The company] is totally opposed to the idea of franchising by establishing 'exclusive service districts,'" wrote Tony Spadaccia, the corporation's South Florida division manager for sales and marketing. In fact the only major in support of the proposal has been Huizenga's Republic. Harold Carter, Jr., the company's director of government affairs in Florida, submitted comments that echoed the arguments of city officials who favor the exclusive franchises. (Carter registered with the city as a lobbyist in March 1998. His only listed expenditure for the year was $100 for golf in November with two city officials: Commissioner Joe Sanchez and his chief of staff.

Sanchez acknowledges that Carter tried to lobby him to favor the new system, but he maintains that complaints his office had received about current collection methods, not Republic, influenced his thinking. "The city doesn't have any control or accountability [under the current system]," he says. "I want to put [the franchise proposal] out for everybody. I don't want to punish any hauler."

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