Trash choice brings high price

Residents of La Cañada Flintridge can choose the company that hauls their trash, but in doing so, they might be choosing higher prices. Even with Athens Services and Allied Waste Services competing, and new hauler NASA soon to be offering its services as well, La Cañada residents are paying more than Altadena residents.

The Los Angeles County Public Works Department on Sept. 1 entered its new exclusive contract for service in unincorporated Altadena with Athens, which charges $54 a quarter for basic three-can service, compared to quarterly prices of $89.68 for Allied and $91.11 for Athens in La Cañada. La Cañada’s contracts with Athens and Allied were renewed at the end of 2010 and expire in 2014.

Thor Schmidt, general manager of Athens Services, said that many factors affect pricing, from geography and distance from their facilities to what types of waste are most common. However, Schmidt said that in the case of the new Altadena contract, its length — 10 years — and exclusivity meant Athens could amortize the costs of new trucks, which are required to be run on compressed natural gas, and new cans.

“There’s a big difference between a [compressed natural gas] vehicle and a diesel; it’s $300,000 for each [CNG] truck,” said Schmidt. “Now you’re going to spread those costs of those vehicles over three years or 10 years, that’s a big difference.”

Schmidt also said the difference in size between La Cañada and Altadena factored into the pricing.

“There’s also a difference between the number of households, 6,500 versus 13,500 households, and the 6,500 households in La Cañada are split between multiple haulers,” said Schmidt. “Traveling down the street and only having one or two of six residents be a customer … it’s a lot more costs involved.”

Allied Services’ rate in La Crescenta, meanwhile, is within 20 cents of their rate in La Cañada. Susan Passantino of Allied said the two cities were similar in terms of the factors used to determine pricing. Allied’s rate in La Cañada is marginally lower than that of Athens.

“Probably our biggest advantage is our ability to internalize our disposal. We own Sunshine Canyon landfill,” said Passantino.

In a survey conducted by the city, a majority of La Cañada Flintridge residents reported a preference for a multiple hauler system. Councilmember Laura Olhasso said that residents liked knowing they weren’t locked in if they received poor service.

“A survey in the community showed that people like the idea of having a choice,” said Olhasso. “‘There isn’t any difference as far as the [service] requirements in the contract. It’s just, if you as a resident feel you’re getting bad service from one hauler, at least you have somewhere else to go.”

Still, Mary Goytia Strauss, La Cañada Public Works management analyst, said that the city had to balance choice with low costs.

“There are economies of scale, I’m sure, but the residents like their ability to choose their hauler,” said Strauss. “Maybe their routes are not as efficient as perhaps if they were servicing the whole community.”

Strauss said the city had considered switching to a single-hauler system like that in place in Altadena, and when the current contract is approaching its expiration date, would do so again.

Olhasso said that the city wanted to weigh the opinions of residents who preferred having a choice, but that she would be open to considering a single-hauler system.

“Sure, I’m always open to look at anything that will drive down costs,” said Olhasso.

Schmidt and Passantino both said that their companies would want to be considered for that single spot if that happened.

“Certainly we would prefer a longer, exclusive contract, with which we can be a lot more aggressive with pricing and offerings,” said Schmidt.

“Our service stands for itself,” said Passantino. “I do believe we have a larger portion of the customers there.”

While residents say they like having a choice, Olhasso said not many choose to exercise it.

“Both haulers tell us that they don’t really lose much business, so I think it’s a feeling of security that you have someplace else to go,” said Olhasso. “But reality is that most residents … are fairly happy with the hauler they’re currently contracting with.”

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