I’ve got a piece running in Sunday’s Bee on the battle over the fate of Fresno’s city-run residential trash service.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin wants to outsource the service to Mid Valley Disposal for budget-fixing money. Outsourcing opponents have until Friday at 5 p.m. to get the signatures of nearly 22,000 registered Fresno voters to take the issue to a special election.
A few tidbits that couldn’t make it into Sunday’s story:
* About 75 trash-truck drivers, residential solid waste workers and labor supporters gathered at 9 a.m. Saturday at Central Labor Council headquarters on West Shaw Avenue.
Fresno City Council President Blong Xiong, Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Henry R. Perea and Fresno Assembly Member Henry T. Perea were among those to deliver pep talks.
“We know history is on our side,” said Henry T. Perea.
“When we get the signatures, the council should rescind” the deal, Xiong said.
Henry R. Perea took the spotlight to a shout of “Our Next Mayor!” He made no effort to stop such talk. “People can change what is happening,” the elder Perea said.
Everyone grabbed clipboards, petitions and lists of registered voters, then headed into a chilly but sunny Fresno morning.
* About 12:30 p.m. Saturday, most of the signature-gatherers returned to the same spot for lunch: grilled hamburgers, hot dogs and hot links.
Folks from the Fresno Police Officers Association did the cooking. The head chief — FPOA President Jacky Parks.
Jacky was even helping people put condiments on their burger buns.
FPOA supports putting the issue on the ballot.
* There have been a lot of twists and turns in the trash story.
Fresno County Assessor Paul Dictos in December decided the Mid Valley deal might be subject to a special tax levied on private companies using public property. The premise was convoluted, but the specter of Dictos’ effort was enough to gladden the hearts of outsourcing opponents who saw a threat to the deal’s finances and angered outsourcing supporters who viewed Dictos as a showboater.
County lawyers said the special tax was a dead-end and Dictos quietly went about other business.
Council Member Clint Olivier (council president at the time) woke up one day in the fall to learn that his central Fresno district was being flooded with pre-printed postcards. The cards’ message to Olivier: Let the people decide, not you. Hundreds of cards, none with stamps, made their way to Olivier’s City Hall mail-box.
Olivier, whose nickname for awhile at City Hall was “The Fourth Vote” because both sides thought he could be swayed, never knew who delivered them.
The outsourcing deal’s third and final vote was to take place on the evening of Dec. 13. Council Member Larry Westerlund was vacationing in Mexico but had made plans to do his duty by phone. Swearengin was ready to celebrate. Then the Great Council Bug-Out happened. The council’s three opponents didn’t show up. Oliver Baines was at a family funeral throughout the day. Xiong and Sal Quintero, in their dais chairs during daylight hours, had vanished. The vote was delayed a week.
“It’s impossible to make trash sexy during the holidays,” said Xiong throughout December. The one-week delay gave opponents another seven days to collect referendum signatures after the Christmas decorations were repacked.
* Entire forests have been clear-cut to produce all the paperwork connected to the outsourcing issue. But one document — just one page — is generating more heat than all the others combined.
It comes from the unions. It’s titled “Side by side comparison. The facts don’t lie.”
The paper of compares what it says are the monthly residential trash rates for various California cities.
On one side is a list of 10 cities with publicly-owned trash services and their monthly rates. The high is Los Angeles at $41.32. The low is Anaheim at $19.53. Fresno is No. 7 on the list at $25.37. Tulare, Visalia, Clovis and Bakersfield are on the list.
Beneath the list of publicly-owned trash services is this: “Fact: NO PROFIT = LOWER RATES”
On the other side of the paper is a list of 10 cities with what is described as “Private For Profit” companies. Their monthly rates are listed. They range from a low of $60.54 (San Mateo) to a high of $101.76 (Palo Alto). All 10 are located in the Bay Area.
Beneath the list of private companies is this: “Fact: PRIVATE FOR PROFIT = HIGHER RATES”
A copy of this paper is routinely handed out to reporters. A union supporter at this morning’s 9 a.m. meeting at the Central Labor Council headquarters emphasized the importance of this paper as signature-gatherers try to persuade Mr. and Mrs. Fresno to sign the petition. The paper was prominently displayed on two tables set up in front of City Hall earlier this week as union supporters talked to potential petition-signers.
Outsourcing opponents love the paper. They say the comparison tells their story in one glance.
Outsourcing supporters — in particular officials in Swearengin’s administration — are incensed by the paper. They say the two lists of rates have nothing in common to the issue before Fresno’s residents. They say the paper is designed to give residents a false impression.
* I left City Hall last week in mid-afternoon to walk back to the newsroom. I think it was Tuesday.
I saw two small tables on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, one on the south side of the fountain, the other on the north side. The tables belonged to outsourcing opponents who were trying to get people to sign the referendum petition.
Two young women — perhaps in their late 20s — were signing their names at the north table. When they were finished, I approached and introduced myself as a Bee reporter working on a story on this issue.
One of the women was named Lupe. She declined to give her last name. The other woman was named Elvia Montalvo.
I asked them: “Why did you sign the petition?”
Lupe was holding a copy of the side-by-side rate rate-comparison chart in her left hand. With her right index finger, she pointed to the numbers: “It looks like our rates are going up.”
Added Elvia: “Yes.”
Lupe said: “I know it sounds kind of cold, but the rates are the only thing I’m concerned about.”
Said Elvia, referring to city trash workers: “It would be unfortunate for people to be left without jobs and then our rates go up.”
The man in charge of the petition table was quite friendly when I first walked up. When Lupe said “it looks like our rates are going up,” the man walked away. He returned to the table after Lupe, Elvia and I left.
* There are two sides to every story. City Hall’s outsourcing supporters say Fresnans are being misinformed by outsourcing opponents. Outsourcing supporters say the contract with Mid Valley requires rates to go down, not up.
Outsourcing opponents say they know rates will rise — if not immediately than down the road — so they’re telling the truth.
Here is highlighted one of the key differences between the tactics of the two sides.
Outsourcing supporters aren’t trying to get anything on a special election ballot. The Mid Valley deal has already passed council muster (on 4-3 votes) and been signed by Swearengin. If nothing changes, the deal becomes official in a week and outsourcing goes into effect on March 4.
There’s no reason for dozens (perhaps hundreds) of outsourcing supporters to go door-to-door and man shopping-center petition tables to try to convince tens of thousands of registered Fresno voters in one-on-one conversations to sign a petition that would authorize the outsourcing of the city’s residential trash service. After all, the outsourcing of that service is already a done deal.
But there’s plenty of reason for dozens (perhaps hundreds) of outsourcing opponents to go door-to-door and man shopping-center petition tables to try to convince tens of thousands of registered Fresno voters in one-on-one conversations to sign a petition whose ultimate aim is the death of an outsourcing contract. After all, the outsourcing deal is a sure thing unless outsourcing opponents succeed in their signature-gathering efforts.
You get the picture. Those one-on-one conversations initiated by outsourcing opponents might entail a long and step-by-step analysis of both sides in this complex issue. Or those one-on-one conversations might be something along the lines of what apparently occurred with Lupe and Elvia in front of City Hall last week — a quick chat with a busy registered voter, a brief look at a sheet of paper containing side-by-side comparisons of starkly different trash rates, the scribble of someone’s John Hancock on a petition, a “thank you,” then on to the next registered voter.
I don’t know.
I do know Swearengin thinks the Lupe-Elvia scenario is the outsourcing opponents’ model of direct action.
I do know she recognizes the outsourcing opponents’ tactical advantage in reaching the average Fresnan in a personal manner.
And I do know outsourcing opponents are upset at what they allege is a systematic effort by the Swearengin administration to offset that tactical advantage.
Outsourcing opponents say the administration has people trailing some door-to-door signature-gatherers and hanging around some shopping center petition tables. These people, say outsourcing opponents, butt into the one-on-one conversations and, in essence, say: “Let me give you the rest of the story.”
Dee Barnes, head of the city’s white-collar union and a strong opponent of outsourcing, called me late this morning. She said the police had to be called to a Target paking lot to calm a confrontation between the two sides.
A spokesman for the mayor on Saturday said Swearengin knows nothing about such goings-on.
* I’ve been covering this story for months. There are two things I still don’t understand.
The first is regulation.
Let me explain.
Over the Christmas holidays I read a wonderful book: “The Prophets of Regulation” by Thomas McCraw. It’s a look at the rise and expansion of federal regulation of American industry. McCraw tells the story through the professional lives of four of the nation’s most storied regulatory thinkers/practitioners. They are Charles Francis Adams Jr., Louis D. Brandeis, James M. Landis and Alfred E. Kahn.
McCraw takes the reader from the railroad mania before and immediately after the Civil War, through the early 20th century Progressive Era, into the New Deal and finishes with deregulation controversies in the Jimmy Carter administration.
Honest — it’s a fascinating tale.
McCraw makes many points drawn from the history of regulation. The one that applies here goes like this: If you promise to regulate, then regulate! And for heaven’s sake, do it so the people can see!
I spoke with City Manager Mark Scott about the book soon after the New Year. Scott, I learned, cut his professional teeth dealing with airline regulation some 35 years ago.
My point is this:
For all intents and purposes, the outsourcing deal turns Mid Valley into a privately-owned public utility. The 300-plus pages of the contract make the company as highly-regulated by city law as any electricity company.
What are the rates? What are the services? What are customer complaint procedures?
This and so much more is spelled out in the contract approved by the City Council for the third and final time on Dec. 20.
But I have yet to learn how City Hall plans consistently and firmly regulate compliance with terms of the contract. Scott in our interview said he’d look into the situation.
The commercial trash service is a good example of what I mean. It was outsourced in 2011 (amid considerable controversy) to Mid Valley and Allied Waste. A long contract was signed. Near as I can tell, implementation of the deal has not been perfect. That’s to be expected in an imperfect world. I have yet to attend a City Council hearing on the status of the contract and the public’s views on it. Why not such reports every six months or so? After all, the council seems to get monthly reports on the city’s program to get energy-saving insulation in bedroom attics.
Opponents of the outsourcing of the residential trash service have made hay with perceived failures of the commercial trash deal. From the administration’s viewpoint, this might have been neutralized if periodic regulatory/oversight reports on the commercial deal had been delivered to the council.
McCraw in his book notes that Charles Francis Adams had some success in post-Civil War railroad regulation through “sunshine commissions.” The light of day on the workings of a regulated industry or business can do wonders for public trust.
Why City Hall didn’t get ahead of the game and emphasize its regulatory framework to assure Fresnans that the Mid Valley deal goes off as planned is a mystery to me.
* No. 2 of the things that still stump me about the residential trash outsourcing drama is the downtown baseball stadium.
What’s that got to do with a homeowner’s garbage?
Well, the big challenge for outsourcing opponents is convincing Fresno that they know for sure what the future holds.
Of course, Swearengin says the same thing. What does the future hold? Why, it’s right there in the contract, Swearengin says. The future holds lower rates.
How do outsourcing opponents counter that? They don’t have a book-sized contract to suggest substance and authority. And if they had a crystal ball, they’d get rich on Wall Street (where, let me add, they say “the trend is your friend.”)
Outsourcing opponents must take a different path. They must invoke trends and precedence to persuade Fresnans that, no matter what city officials say, the unfolding of history will lead to higher rates and anguished ratepayers.
Outsourcing opponents deal with this challenge in part by relying on the side-by-side rate chart mentioned above. “Here’s the future,” the chart says.
Outsourcing opponents also deal with this challenge by pointing at Granite Park, the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and the Convention Center parking garage. They’re City Hall disasters. Just mentioning the words communicates a simple message: City Hall — can’t trust it.
But these three examples don’t actually buttress the opponents’ fundamental argument for asking Fresnans to spend as much as $1 million to overturn the council’s outsourcing decision. The fundamental argument of outsourcing opponents isn’t that City Hall can’t be trusted to manage debt, which is what Granite Park, The Met and the garage represent. The opponents’ fundamental argument is that the Mid Valley deal is a ruse. Maybe not intentional, but a ruse nonetheless.
They say Mid Valley will get its foot in the door, lower rates for a year or two until the city-run trash service is completely dismantled, then plead financial emergency to the City Council and insist on huge rate increases.
The city, with no spare trash service on a distant lot at the City Yard just waiting to go into action, will have no choice but to cave, outsourcing opponent say.
Maybe. Maybe not.
But what I don’t understand is why outsourcing opponents have been hesitant to list detailed examples of City Hall has actually suffered in this way.
Don’t get me wrong. Outsourcing opponents often mention this threat to Fresnans. Henry T. Perea did so Saturday morning during pep talks at Central Labor Council headquarters. But it’s usually done obliquely — “they sign a contract, then come back to the council.” There’s not much detail on “they” and what “they” did.
But there is such an example, one that outsourcing opponent occasionally mention but seldom expore in depth for Fresno’s benefit. I’m talking about the Fresno Grizzlies and the city’s decision to build the $46 million downtown baseball stadium.
Think back to the fall of 2000. The city had been fighting for a decade over how to build a big-time baseball stadium. The dot.com bubble had burst, finances were tightening and the Fresno Grizzlies were sick of playing at Beiden Field.
Mayor Jim Patterson and council members Chris Mathys and Ken Steitz wanted the Fresno Diamond Group, the Grizzlies’ owner, to either foot the entire bill or foot most of the bill for construction of a downtown stadium.
A council majority was keen on downtown revitalization. Alan Autry and Dan Whitehurst were competing on who could say the most nice things about downtown revitalization in their mayoral race.
In October 2000, before a standing-room-only crowd, a 5-2 council majority voted to build the entire $46 million stadium with city money. Actually, it was money borrowed for 30 years.
Make no mistake, it was a decision of such controversy that the residential trash issue pales in comparison. But what tipped the scales for stadium supporters was a formula for meeting the $3.5 million annual bond payment that, on paper, looked great.
The Redevelopment Agency would chip in $200,000. Parking ($5 a car) would produce an easy $620,500. City-sponsored entertainment events at the multi-purpose stadium (concerts nearly year-‘round were promised) would net at least $425,000. Room and sale taxes generated by all the out-of-town people attending Grizzlies games would garner nearly $100,000.
But the two key predictions, the revenue estimates that turned a dead-in-the-water deal into a can’t-miss deal, involved the general fund and the Grizzlies’ rent.
The Grizzlies would pay the stunning sum of $1.5 million a year. That was far more than any other Minor League team in America, even those who weren’t playing in one of the nation’s poorest cities. But the Grizzlies owners said they’d gladly pay $1.5 million for all 30 years.
And because the Grizzlies’ owners would pay $1.5 million a year for three decades, the city’s general fund (which pays for parks and public safety and whose precarious state is at the heart of the outsourcing debate) would have to contribute only about $690,000 a year to the annual payment on the stadium construction bonds.
To be precise, that was $690,334 from the general fund toward a bond bill of $3,530,134 — less than 20% to come from the general fund.
The two no votes came from Mathys and Steitz. You’ll rue the day, they told their council colleagues.
The five-person council majority said deal would mean the rebirth of Fresno as a great city. The council chamber erupted with whoops and hollers and shouts of joy.
Patterson vetoed the deal. The council by the same 5-2 vote overturned the veto.
There was no talk from the council majority about taking the stadium deal to the voters.
Then it all turned to ashes. The Fresno Diamond Group after a few years admitted it couldn’t pay the $1.5 million rent. The deal was reworked. The Grizzlies were sold to the Fresno Baseball Club. The new owners said the rent was too high. The contract was reworked again, this time on Swearengin’s watch (if anyone knows what it’s like to renegotiate a public-private contract under unfavorable conditions, it’s this mayor).
Then the RDA was killed by Jerry Brown. And Fresno learned that nobody wants to go an outdoor concert in downtown Fresno in January.
Now the Grizzlies’ rent is about $700,000 a year, and the owners still say it’s too high. The general fund picks up the rest of the bond bill, about $2 million a year more than what Fresnans were led to believe when the five-person council majority in October 2000 ignored Chris Mathys and Ken Steitz, overrode Jim Patterson’s veto and assured Fresno taxpayers that Grizzlies’ contract was set in stone for 30 years.
Just think if today’s City Hall had that $2 million a year for parks and salaries instead of having to send it to bondholders because that stadium payment schedule was successfully sold to Fresno taxpayers in October 2000. Perhaps Swearengin would decide she doesn’t need Mid Valley’s franchise fee.
This stadium story would seem to perfectly fit the outsourcing opponents’ challenge of finding an easily-recognizable, easy-to-digest example of what they say the Mid Valley deal will turn into. Fresnans would grasp the essential point in a heartbeat.
But for the most part — not always, but for the most part — outsourcing opponents have been content to merely lump the stadium into the same sentence listing all the other decisions that have Fresno on the brink of bankruptcy.
Which is odd. After all, two of the strongest opponents of outsourcing are Council Member Quintero and Supervisor Perea. They could speak with unmatched authority on the stadium deal. In October 2000, they were part of the five-member council majority that made it part of Fresno’s legacy.