By Allen Edmonds
In the real world, a failure that directly affects the lives and pocketbooks of all 20,000-plus of our customers is not something most of us get to repeat.
City managers in both Belton and Raymore were entrusted two years ago with the responsibility of coming up with a contract that would replace each of our individual rights to choose our own service provider. In this case, it was solid waste, recycling and yard waste pickup.
An excellent case can be made for this service being classified as a public utility, because it does serve a very basic community need.
And though each of our communities have ordinances requiring trash service for every residence, it was true that both our largest cities had difficulty enforcing the ordinance before implementing citywide service. This creates dumping issues, which lowers property values and can affect public health.
Raymore, under former Mayor Juan Alonzo and former City Manager Eric Berlin and successfully implemented the program several years before Belton got on board in 2017, and it was a fairly big deal, as expected.
In America, we love the free market, and we have an aversion to losing our individual choice. Only when presented with the temptation of cleaner streets, less wear and tear on our pavement from heavy trucks, and yes, the economic advantage of bulk purchasing, are we likely to bend.
Within months after Raymore first began its program, the grumping and groaning of the minority began to wane. The advantages were clear, and the contractor performed well.
It was with this record that Belton embarked on its journey two years ago under then new City Manager Alexa Barton. It was decided that to achieve an even stronger scale advantage, Belton and Raymore would solicit a single bid for the three-year term beginning in 2018, with options for single-year extensions.
This would give residents rate stability for up to five years, with only market-driven increases allowed.
And in Belton, an older, and some say, more stubborn community than Raymore, the advantages became obvious and despite some reservations, the City Council approved the plan.
Though Raymore City Manager Jim Feuerborn had been on board in Raymore for quite a while longer than Barton had been in Belton, it was his first experience with a new solid waste/recycling/yard waste contract as well.
Bids arrived, one was significantly lower than all the others, and the low bid was selected.
That was when things flew off the rails.
Immediately, there were issues.
Containers were up to a month and in some cases, longer, overdue being delivered to residents’ driveways.
Missed and late pickups were rampant, and social media amplified the volume of the disaster, as it often does.
But patience was preached. It was know that the contractor was experiencing growing pains, which was understandable due to the massive work volume increase it had suddenly taken on.
Late last month, more than a year into the contract, things seemed to come to a head when the contractor announced that due to market conditions, it would no longer be taking recycling materials to the recycling center. Instead, they would go to the landfill.
Immediately, there was backlash. Belton announced it was concerned and would be negotiating with the contractor, but Raymore, through Assistant City Manager Mike Ekey, announced that Belton’s statement had created “confusion,” and that after discussions with the contractor, it was agreed that the contract would be fulfilled.
Well guess what? The contract only committed the firm to pick up solid waste, recycling and yard waste, and provide the cities with weights for each category. There was no direction on how the materials should be disposed of.
The contract was flawed, as attorney Padraic Corcoran of Williams & Campo, P.C., who is currently serving as Belton’s part-time city attorney, admitted Thursday night when he said one of his duties would be to go about the task of “tightening up some loopholes in the contract.”
And despite the aggravation of trying to poke through his intentional vagueness, he actually came as close as anyone to recognizing that this disaster wasn’t just some random castastrophe that “happened to” our city government at the expense of its citizens.
Instead, our elected officials on both sides of the Interstate remained mute throughout this week’s process of cancelling the contract – speaking only to cast unanimous votes, eagerly complying with staff’s requests to erase the relationship but also spend more of our tax dollars to streamline the process of correcting the next mistake.
In Raymore, councilmembers eagerly shelled out nearly a million dollars to buy containers to facilitate an easier transition should the need to change vendors arise again, and in Belton, the figure was $550,000.
Belton figured savings could be achieved by not purchasing recycling containers.
And as citizens have pointed out in large numbers, this from a community that has asked for two tax increases in the last year.
Mistakes and miscalculations can happen in business. As said at the outset, a poorly written contract, followed by a vetting process that somehow didn’t expose the potential weakness of the bidder, followed by a clearly failed effort by city staffs to manage the relationship – in both cities – would cost someone a job in the world most of us work in.
In government, we know that expectation doesn’t always apply.
But what we, as citizens – the ones in charge of funding this operation – expect, is these answers: how did the contract get written so poorly, how did the vetting process fail, and how did the relationship fail?
And mostly, how do those mistakes get avoided in the future?
We not only received none of those answers this week, but we were met with stony, defensive silence or worse, a victim mentality.
This arrogance ends now.