Garbage districts needed to combat sluggish trash haulers, county staff say

Chart Riggall, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
·3 min read

Apr. 29—MARIETTA — Sweeping changes could be on the horizon for Cobb County's trash collection methods.

Jonathan Jenkins, head of Cobb's Sustainability, Waste and Beautification Department, suggested to commissioners this week that they create a series of garbage "districts" across unincorporated Cobb.

The county would regulate which companies are allowed to operate within each district, and residents could choose a provider based on price and services needed.

Public Services Agency Director Bill Tanks told commissioners in January that the county needs to take a more active role in regulating its trash collection market. As collectors have been consolidated from about 60 companies in 1999 to around 20 in 2019, service has declined while prices have spiked.

Cobb's current system is an open market, where providers can operate anywhere they please in the county so long as they meet minimum licensing and insurance standards.

"It's free for all," Tanks said of the current system. "The root problem is our ordinance is so weak, that corporations ... can come in here and buy up the good services, give them a non-compete clause, take over their routes, and not have the trucks and staff to meet the need."

Tanks, who was keen to emphasize the district system is still "just a concept," says he doesn't have a problem with consolidation per se—as long as companies provide good service.

"No complaints? We don't bother you," he said. "(If) a large merger comes in, takes over services, and then raises prices rapidly without the level of service (and) citizens complain, we want to have the authority to come in and say, you're losing that zone."

Under the proposed system, if residents file a certain number of complaints against a collector within a given time frame, the county would be able to revoke the collector's ability to operate in the district.

In addition, the county would levy a fine against the collector, using the proceeds to bring in a new company. Currently, if a permit is yanked, residents may end up shouldering the costs both for services they did not receive and for purchasing service from a new hauler.

Jenkins said the current lack of "punitive enforcement ability" against collectors who skimp on the job is a significant issue.

"If a garbage hauler isn't picking up, the best that we can do is just remove that garbage hauler's permit," Jenkins said. "When we do that, that just means that the residences are going to go that much longer without having their trash picked up."

Valid complaints, Tanks said, could be for issues from trash not being picked up to unreasonable rate hikes.

Jenkins, his staff, and Tanks are still working to hammer out the details of the system, such as how many districts they would create and how many providers would operate within each. Companies would also be required to respond to all customer inquiries within one business day, a boon for irate residents with uncollected trash.

As with nearly every department in the county, the Sustainability, Waste and Beautification Department also wants more staff, and more funding. Cobb currently spends just $2.58 per resident on waste management, as compared with $16.99 by the City of Atlanta and $41.87 by Gwinnett County.

"I would love to be able to say we are that low because we are that frugal, but that would be in error," Jenkins said. "We are actually not necessarily providing all of the services and opportunities that some of these other areas are providing."

Cobb's waste management ordinances were last updated in the mid-1990s, he said.