Junk Bond

For decades Minneapolis has paid the same company to haul trash. Is it a good deal? No one has asked.

That was all too true in 1997, the last time the city council debated the issue. Steve Minn, then a council member who pushed to open up the contract to competitive bids, recalls a bitter debate. In the end, Minn's plan failed on a 7-6 vote and the city renegotiated MRI's contract. But, as Minn recalls it, that was supposed to be the last time the city re-inked the deal without inviting proposals from other haulers.

"We were within a mouse's hair of taking competitive bids. And the next time around it was supposed to be competitive bidding," he says. "It's absolutely criminal that it's never been competitively bid. Once, just once, could we please get a price check?"

Probably not this time around. The decision to renegotiate MRI's contract--though without the consortium's requested retroactive fee hike--passed the city council's Transportation and Public Works Committee on March 8. The Ways and Means/Budget Committee deadlocked 3-3 on March 19 and sent the issue on to the full council. Though Sonnenberg is responsible for providing the trash service, he has asked the council for explicit directions on how to proceed with the contract in order to avoid the heated debate of 1997.

In a December letter to the chairs of the council's Transportation and Ways and Means committees, Sonnenberg asked the council to tell his office how to handle the situation. "If it is the city's policy to use this public/private partnership as a means of competition to potentially leverage down rates for our customers, then the direct way of providing that competition is allowing the private sector to compete," he wrote. "If it is the city council's policy to continue with a public/private partnership that has proven effective in delivering this service, then it would be more appropriate to renegotiate the existing contract."

Now that the transportation committee has moved to reopen negotiations with MRI, Sonnenberg sees it as a "reaffirmation" that the city will stay with MRI and continue on with the service that has been provided for years.

And why not, offers Lisa McDonald, Tenth Ward council member. "The relationship seems to work with MRI. I don't get a lot of complaints about garbage pickup," she says, adding that she'll support the renegotiation unless a problem pops up.

But to other council members, the whole garbage situation leaves too many questions hanging. "The City of Minneapolis is not a charity for anybody, whether it's downtown developers or trash collectors," says Barret Lane. "This is a highly questionable deal. It's not questionable because of what's being asked, but because of what's not being asked, what's not being said, what's not being discussed. It's something that's just being slid through."

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