South Gate business owners, angered by hefty hikes in their trash bills, are pressuring the city to kill an agreement that gives one hauler a rubbish monopoly.
Commercial trash rates were restructured on Aug. 1, when the agreement between the city and Torrance-based Western Waste Industries took effect, making the company the sole rubbish collector in the city. Before that, commercial garbage had been handled by 11 haulers.
At Atlantis Burgers on Tweedy Boulevard, the monthly trash bill jumped from about $130 to nearly $240 under the new system, owner John Andreou said. And at Ameron Corp., a concrete and pipe manufacturer on Firestone Boulevard, the bill rose from about $600 a month to more than $1,000, said general manager Art Herbon.
Critics of the higher charges are meeting with City Council members in the hope of persuading them to renegotiate a new rate structure or to cancel the exclusive contract altogether. Last year, after a public outcry over a $4.08 increase in monthly residential charges, the city negotiated with Western Waste and won a 75-cent reduction.
"The all-American city of South Gate is not keeping with the all-American system of free enterprise," said Gene Scalf, the head of an informal association of businesses and commercial property owners. "If you've got the only game in town, you can charge high for it. The citizens are the ones who are going to wind up paying."
Under the new rates, an average business pays $78.84 each month, up from $65, for a three-cubic-yard bin that is emptied once a week. Companies that use larger bins or more frequent service face larger increases.
Still, the rates are lower than those in some surrounding cities that have exclusive agreements. Weekly pickup for three-cubic-yard bins costs more than $85 a month in Huntington Park, Lynwood and Compton, city spokesmen said.
Mark Bozajian, Western Waste executive vice president, defended the rate hike, saying most businesses will see only a modest increase in their trash bills. Some companies are paying little more than before, and others are paying less because they were charged high prices by their previous haulers, he said. Bozajian pointed to businesses like El Terruno Restaurant on Long Beach Boulevard, whose bill went from $237 to $223.
"Yes, there have been increases. Yes, there have been decreases," Bozajian said. "But the rates are competitive. I am sensitive to the effect of a rate increase on a business, but you have to look at what is fair for service."
Western Waste, which has agreed to merge with Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., the nation's No. 2 waste management company, has been the city's exclusive residential hauler for more than 26 years. It also held 70% of the city's commercial business until the new agreement took effect last month.
City Manager Todd W. Argow said the rate increase was necessary to allow Western Waste to meet rising operating costs, including escalating dump fees. The company had not received a rate hike in 3 1/2 years, he said.
The new charges, approved by the City Council in April, were recommended by a citizens committee that included several business people, he said.
The city had planned since the mid-1980s to consolidate its commercial trash service with one hauler, and Western Waste was best equipped to handle the job, Argow said. The City Council approved the agreement in December, 1991, as part of a package that included automated collection and a recycling system for residential trash.
The company was the only trash hauler in the city that was willing to assume full liability for state-mandated reductions in the amount of trash hauled to landfills, Argow said. Under state law, trash going to landfills must be reduced 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000. Cities that do not comply face fines of up to $10,000 a day.
"The small haulers are ill-equipped to handle the reporting requirements," Argow said. "Western Waste has methods for keeping track of what they put in the waste stream and what they recycle."
Mayor Mary Ann Buckles praised the exclusive agreement and said the new rates are fair.
"Any attempt to cancel the contract would be a very bad move on the city's part," Buckles said. "It would open us up to liability. Western Waste has been an excellent trash hauler for the city."
Bozajian said his company has helped about 100 commercial customers reduce their trash bills by finding ways to cut their waste and by re-examining how much service they need. He said Western Waste will assist other businesses that ask.
The offer has failed to win over some businesses, however. Sealy Mattress Co. on Firestone Boulevard, for example, decided not to take the trash service because of the cost, an additional $2,000 a month, said Ed Hood, plant superintendent.
Instead, the company has started dumping its own trash at a local landfill, at about the same cost of $2,500 that it used to pay to have its garbage hauled away. "By bringing it under my own control, I can beat Western Waste's price," Hood said. "We can do it on our own at a reasonable price."