Ely council talks trash

Several support putting sanitation contract out for bids

by Tom Coombe
Ely council members are pondering changes to the city’s sanitation contract, including a competitive bid process for residential service and allowing commercial property owners the opportunity to contract with whom they choose.
But those ideas generated pushback Tuesday night, both from the incumbent provider and some business owners who spoke at the monthly study session.
Council members took no action Tuesday, but some went on record in support of changes that would strip exclusivity from the current contractor - G Men Environmental Services - and perhaps create separate contracts for residential and business service.
“I think competition has a time and place, and this is the time,” said council member Paul Kess. “Having an exclusive contract now for 10 years, I think we’ve gotten away from any sense of responsibility to the taxpayer. It’s time to rebid that to see if there are any other haulers who can complete.”
But while Kess and others, including mayor Chuck Novak and council member Al Forsman, endorsed changes to the status quo, council member Heidi Omerza said “I have no interest in splitting up the residential and commercial.“
“Over the years, how many complaints have we gotten?” said Omerza. “And now we’re going to throw everything out? For what?”
G Men owner JJ Day also pushed back against potential changes.
Accompanied by family members and employees, Day cited the history of his business, its contribution to local causes, and the union jobs it provides.
“I’m struggling to understand what I’ve done to deserve to be attacked,” said Day.
Day said that since his company took over the city’s sanitation contract in 2011, it has made improvements in services and reinvested in equipment while holding rates largely in check.
“Ely is the core foundation of our business,,” said Day.
Day noted his business is staffed from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that the company has worked on numerous fronts to benefit the community, including the city’s annual spring clean up days each May.
Forsman, who is part of the city’s sanitation committee, which recommended seeking bids for a contract that will expire later this year, joined others on the council in expressing satisfaction with the G Men’s service as Ely’s exclusive residential and commercial sanitation provider.
“I’m pleased with the rates provided,” said Forsman. “I don’t thik that’s an issue. I think the residential rates at this point have been well maintained.”
Forsman and others instead framed the issue as one of consumer choice, particularly for business owners in Ely.
He added “some commercial businesses have been unable to obtain satisfactory service to their needs - I’d like to see that part of the contract addressed.”
While Forsman did not identify commercial property owners who wanted a change, two in favor of the status quo came Tuesday to argue in Day’s behalf.
Paul Ivancich, owner of the Ely DQ Grill and Chill, voiced satisfaction both with the G Men’s rates and service, saluting the company for providing cardboard service.
“That service for my business is very much appreciated,” said Ivancich.
Ivancich said he has seen garbage hauling rates paid by other DQ stores in the region and said Day “is very fair.”
Ivancich also cautioned that competition may not necessarily lead to better rates, particularly if residential and commercial service is split between two providers.
“It’s not a guarantee that you’re going to save money for the taxpayer,” said Ivancich.
Misty Merhar of Merhar’s Ace Hardware also supported the incumbent provider.
She pointed to “living wage jobs” provided by the company as well as the investment in equipment made by the company to provide service, including receptacles, trucks and dumpsters.
Merhar also questioned the five-and-a-half month notice given to Day that the contract would be placed up for bid.
“I think at minimum it should be one or two years,” said Merhar. “He’s banking on this wage. His employees are banking on their jobs.”
Merhar also pointed out numerous contributions made by the G Men to community causes and local youth sports groups.
Kess responded that the issue is one of consumer choice.
“My concern is not about the quality of service,” said Kess. “It’s from the business perspective of having the freedom to choose your own hauler. Many are those who want to look around and competition is generally a good thing. I think it benefits your business as well.”
Not all of the business owners who spoke favored the status quo.
Jay Poshak of J&L Hardware lobbied for competition and the option for business owners to select the garbage hauler of their choice.
Forsman also said he’d like to see the sanitation contract holder provide recycling services as well, noting that another company that wanted to do so was blocked because of the exclusivity clause in the contract with the G Men.
“It should be provided or (others) should be allowed to provide,” said Forsman.
Day responded there were legal issues associated with a recycling plan offered by a potential competitor.
He also defended his business on multiple fronts, from customer service to rates, including a monthly minimum charge.
Day contends that opening the commercial contract to multiple providers could allow some firms to come in and “cherry pick” business. He also responded to a complaint about the number of days his company provides service.
“This is Ely, Minnesota, not Las Vegas,” he said.
Day said “I used to go out seven days a week,” and added he would no longer leave family “at 55-below to service trash for one individual.”
He also noted that employees are part of a union and said “we honor the relationship we have with our customers.”
Council members will have final say, and there were differing opinions at the table,
Omerza said “my concern is our size when it comes to economy of size and numbers. I don’t think we want to put a business out of business because we are part and parceling it out.”
Council member Jerome Debeltz said “I don’t have any problem” with the G Men’s service but added he wanted changes “that would make the commercial people happy.”
Kess envisioned a change that would allow commercial property owners to “negotiate with haulers of their choice,” while member Angela Campbell said she also favored options rather than a contract that could allow an incumbent provider to remain for as long as 15 years, pointing to a five-year deal that allowed two five-year rollovers.
“That’s a long contract in my estimation” said Campbell.
Novak said he believed “businesses should be able to go where they want,” for service.