Who’ll pick up the trash? Divided Ely council rejects G Men renewal, will open up process

by Tom Coombe
By a narrow majority, Ely council members want to give consumers a choice when it comes to trash pickup in town.
They rejected, on a 4-3 vote, a proposal Tuesday to renew the contract held by the incumbent provider - G Men Environmental Services.
The city will instead develop licensing processes to allow for two service providers, a move that has some urgency given a contract with the G Men that expires at the end of the month.
Council members also requested that the G Men extend their current contract through June 30, 2020.
The council was clearly divided over the issue, which has festered for several months.
Council member Heidi Omerza blasted the decision and predicted it would result in higher rates paid by Ely residents, while some wondered if the move may at least temporarily force residents to seek other options - including hauling garbage to the landfill south of town.
Those in favor of the decision pushed back, saying they were responding to citizen complaints and criticizing terms of a contract renewal presented during Tuesday’s meeting.
“It seems obvious to me that through negotiations with the current provider that there’s no intent to work with the council to address the issues we brought forward,” said Forsman.
“I’m with Al and Paul (Kess),” added council member Ryan Callen. “I’d like to open it up and give residents and business owners a chance to pick who they want and allow only up to two licenses. If they’re not happy with one they can go with the other.”
Callen joined Kess, Forsman and Angela Campbell in rejecting the renewal and calling for two licensees. Mayor Chuck Novak, Omerza and Jerome Debeltz favored the renewal.
“I will say that I have a duty to the majority of citizens to protect their best interests,” said Novak. “And what is the cost of their trash pick-up going to be. I think we are getting into a situation where the cost realistically will rise. When I compare to what my son pays in Plymouth, we are paying half-price up here. And that’s not bad. We have a good reliable service.”
Omerza insisted the net impact of the decision would be higher costs for Ely consumers, noting “we work very hard as a city to make sure we keep rates down, it doesn’t matter if it’s property tax or EUC or whatever... If we reject this rates will go up.”
Kess disputed Omerza’s prediction and argued the city has done little to look at other options for trash service.
“I think our first priority should be to decline the proposal and entertain other options,” said Kess.
Tuesday’s vote marked the latest chapter in a saga that has continued for several months and included twists and turns.
The city served notice to the G Men earlier in the year that it would seek bids once the contract expires.
The decision prompted discussion in June, including protests from G Men owner JJ Day, who cited union jobs provided by his company and noted a series of advances made by the firm since taking over the sanitation contract in 2011.
Council sentiment was also split then, with several members calling for more choice, particularly for business owners.
But since then, the G Men and city attorney Kelly Klun have held discussions which led to this week’s presentation calling for a contract renewal.
It called for three, five-year deals, subject to termination after each five-year increment, including amendments to the current pact.
Among them was an earlier starting time, 6 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m., for pickup service as well as the addition of weekend service for commercial customers.
The G Men proposed a $50 surcharge for Saturday pickups, in part to recover costs of $350 per day to put a truck into service.
“They’ve had very few customers express the need for Saturday pickup,” said Klun. “(And) $350 is their cost, for a minimum four-hour shift and equipment costs.”
Klun said the presentation was the result of lengthy negotiations with legal counsel for the G Men.
“If you do not agree, as soon as November it could be an open system,” said Klun. “We would need to establish licensing requirements.”
Klun asked “for direction” from the council, but the result was perhaps the most divisive and lengthy debate at the council table this year. Omerza said Klun had done “due diligence” and that the city should accept the agreement.
She said she struggled with the thought of Ely residents having to take their trash to the landfill and noted issues the city was facing related to the relocation of the recycling center.
Omerza also questioned the depth of concern over the service provided by the G Men.
“We don’t have any formal complaints,” she said. “We have a few people squabbling over things.”
Forsman said he thought the potential 15-year contract, pending the five-year renewals, is too long and “handcuffs” future councils.
“I personally do not feel any contract should extend that length of time,” said Forsman. “And I have said before that I had people complain about the way the system is set, that they’re forced to go with a provider they do not want to go with it. All of these have been on the commercial side.”
Forsman also reiterated his preference for splitting the residential and commercial components of the trash collection contract.
Campbell added that she had concerns as well over the length of the contract.
As the 4-3 split became apparent, both Novak and Omerza voiced frustration.
“We are taking an inordinate amount of time on this,” said Omerza. “It’s something I know for a fact that will cost the citizens of Ely more money and it saddens my heart greatly.”
Novak said those opposed to the status quo should be providing more options and questioned the amount of additional work the issue would create for council members and city staff, along with legal fees associated with the dispute.
“How much (in) legal fees do you want to pay?” asked Novak. “This is more money we’re spending this year.”
Kess countered that “I object to the sky is falling approach if we do not renew this contract.”
According to Kess, neither Morse Township nor Winton have formal contracts “yet their garbage gets picked up.”
“We have never had a discussion about what the options are, and I’ve brought it up several times,” said Kess.
Novak pointed to numerous other issues on his plate and said, “I thought the person who brought the idea to the table should take the lead.”