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Athens government considers changes to waste collection in rural areas

Athens government considers changes to waste collection in rural areas

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A committee of the Athens-Clarke County Commission is considering whether to recommend changes to garbage collection outside of the old Athens city limits as the next action item for the full commission.

These changes could result in some residents of the county’s General Service District, formerly Clarke County, losing their current preferred private garbage collection service. In addition, the proposed changes could mean the end of self-collection by residents who bring their own household garbage to the Athens-Clarke County Landfill.

But before any changes are made, the Legislative Review Committee (LRC) will survey residents of the General Service District. The committee is scheduled to review a proposed survey at its Aug. 8 meeting and could present a new proposal for garbage collection in the General Service District to the full commission as early as November, in line with a timeline proposed last month by Commissioner Carol Myers, who chairs the LRC.

Garbage collection was the only service that remained unchanged when Athens and Clarke counties merged in 1991. The merger was approved by referendum in both counties in November 1990. At that time, Old Town handled garbage collection itself, while over a dozen private garbage collection companies operated routes through the unincorporated county. In addition, residents of the unincorporated area could take their household garbage to the landfill.

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In recent years, the number of private garbage collection companies has decreased significantly. Today, residents of the General Service District can choose from five private haulers with annual permits from the Athens-Clarke County government. The five companies are AAA Sanitation, Curbside Services, Republic, Waste Pro and Johnson and Son.

Self-collection is still permitted in the General Service District, and according to Suki Jannsen, director of the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Management Authority, up to 2,000 residents take their own household garbage to the landfill.

Jannsen, who spent more than an hour at the LRC’s June meeting, was there to present a recommendation from the local Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC) to change garbage collection in the General Service District from the current permit model to a franchise system.

The franchise approach can be implemented in two ways, the LRC learned from Jannsen.

She said they could negotiate a contract with a single garbage hauler to handle garbage collection for the entire General Service District, which has an estimated 19,000 customers. Or they could take the approach preferred by SWAC and divide the GSD into five zones, with each of the existing garbage haulers handling one zone, Jannsen told the committee.

A problem with the latter approach is that one of the garbage collection contractors, Johnson and Son, is a small business that collects its customers’ garbage using a pickup truck and therefore may not be able to cover an entire assigned zone.

“We have talked about franchising several times, but there was never any impetus to officially go before the mayor and the commission,” Jannsen said.

Mayor Kelly Girtz asked the SWAC to study franchising in 2022, and last year SWAC members recommended the modified approach as the path forward for garbage collection in the General Service District, at which point Girtz referred the issue to the LRC.

While district officials understand that many General Service District residents do not want to lose their preferred carrier – which is certainly possible with franchising – franchising also has advantages, Janssen told the LRC.

On the plus side, Janssen said, franchising would likely reduce service costs and reduce the problems associated with having multiple garbage collection companies serving individual neighborhoods, such as in-street garbage collections several days a week, which can spill liquid waste onto neighborhood streets and cause more wear and tear on those streets.

Additionally, Jannsen said, a franchise system would increase accountability because each franchisee would work under a specific contract with the Athens-Clarke County government. These contracts would specify the level of services required and could also regulate issues such as fees for hiring services, which in some cases were prohibitively high.

On the other hand, a franchise system would mean that the possibility of taking the garbage to the landfill yourself would be eliminated, said Janssen.

Self-disposers, she added, have been particularly vocal when the local government has had various discussions about garbage collection over the years. According to Jannsen, the people who “get most upset” during discussions about garbage collection service are “those who don’t normally have service and want to do what they want with their garbage…”

But, Jannsen told the committee, self-collection erodes the garbage collection customer base. Garbage collection companies, she continued, “want a stable customer base that they can align their capital expenditures and their operating expenditures with.”

Before the committee decided to survey residents of the General Service District, Commissioner Jesse Houle suspected that people who dispose of their own garbage might have an incentive to be an overly large number of respondents, thus skewing the survey results in their favor.

Regardless, Commissioner John Culpepper replied: “We are talking about 19,000 people who would be affected. I think we owe it to them to get their opinion.”