Editorial: CPI-based trash collection contract has pros, cons for city

Sweet Home Sanitation is asking for a rate increase, as we report on page 1.

That’s fine. We’ve no beef with that. The increase seems to be in line with previous requests – fairly minor. It makes sense. Costs are going up as the economy expands and the council is right in taking the first step toward giving a 2.1 percent increase to the company, which asked for and received a similarly small increase in rates two years ago.

When Sweet Home Sanitation, always a stand-up company, asked for the increase two years ago, it ran into a speed bump when a councilor dickered over something like 14 cents of a very reasonable increase.

This time around, some councilors expressed concerns about the wisdom of locking into an annual increase based on the Portland-Salem Consumer Price Index, which may or may not reflect reality in our community. Councilor Dave Trask, in particular, is right to question this approach, and he should stand firm on it as the ordinance that would change the contract has two more readings to go.

Sweet Home Sanitation should continue as it has done and request increases based on current circumstances related to operating its business in Sweet Home and avoid an automated bump that prevents the council’s consideration or that prevents a councilor from giving the company static when it asks for an increase.

We see the argument for locking in to the CPI, a measure calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics of the variation in prices paid by typical consumers for retail goods and other items in a particular location – nationwide or on a more local scale.

As noted by City Manager Ray Towry and Sweet Home Sanitation officials, a lot of other local municipalities use the CPI to calculate their garbage rates.

It is, as they said, predictable. Once the rate for the previous 12 months has been established by the federal government, it will dictate what we pay for trash collection for the coming year.

However, as some council members pointed out, how well does the Portland-Salem CPI reflect realities in Sweet Home, which lagged behind the rest of the state in recovery from the recession of 2008? And do we really want to sign on to a deal that annually renews itself automatically for a six-year span? If it doesn’t work well for local residents, how easy would it be to reverse course?

Sweet Home Sanitation holds a monopoly on local trash service via an exclusive agreement with our government to provide that service. No one else can legally pick up our trash.

If the company intends to hold that monopoly and operate as if it were a public utility, the only game in town providing the service, then it should act like a utility in regards to this contract.

Every year, the council reviews water and sewer rates. It’s difficult for the councilors to increase rates, but they must. It’s a hard reality that rates must increase to cover operating expenses, and councilors must make that decision.

They don’t like it, and sometimes, they drag their feet.

That reluctant oversight by elected officials is the reality that Sweet Home Sanitation should face if it enjoys operating in a market with zero competitors. It should have to justify its rate increases every time.

That said, in all the years we’ve covered these increase, company officials have always brought modest rate proposals to the council. In the past 20 years, we can recall only one councilor ever giving Sweet Home Sanitation a hard time about it. At that time, Sweet Home Sanitation did a superb job justifying that request, and the council approved it.

The company has regularly justified its requests, and the council has simply approved them. That’s good government.

If a councilor wants to be grouchy about it, well that’s the councilor’s prerogative and maybe part of his or her job. That’s something for voters to decide. It’s also a hazard of being a public utility or, more technically accurately, a government-sanctioned monopoly with all privileges inherent in the concept.

Sweet Home Sanitation’s relationship with the community is a good one, as indicated by what we’ve described above.

It’s hard to see how a system that requires communication and building a case for price increases is wrong for Sweet Home – or for its trash collection provider. Hence, why change it?