How to Get an Even Better Trash Deal Than Bethlehem’s Single Hauler Plan

If John Callahan becomes County Executive next year, he should think about trying to negotiate a trash hauling contract on behalf of all Northampton County municipalities. The greater the number of households the County is buying for, the stronger their hand will be in negotiating down the price per household.

Why Would Polls Even Matter for the Bethlehem Trash Debate?

Nitpicking polling methodology is a classic tactic of people wanting to discredit results they don’t like, and this is especially true in the case of the single hauler debate where some folks seem desperate to unskew Muhlenberg’s Bethlehem city survey’s finding that a clear majority won’t mind switching to a single trash hauler. Mostly they are just exposing their own ignorance about basic statistics and social science. Poll as many more non-responders as you like – you still won’t see the 10-20 point swing you need to show a majority in opposition to Callahan’s plan. The opposition is at most 30%, and that’s being generous.

So the poll results are clear enough, but I want to argue that the poll results aren’t even important here. People have a first order preference to have their garbage carted away in a cheap and efficient way. They want their trash gone, and they want a good value. Many people also have a second order preference about how their trash should be collected, and who should collect it, but this group is obviously much smaller.

There’s no way for Council members to satisfy everybody’s second order preference, and they shouldn’t really be too concerned with that. They’re the elected representatives. Their job is to study the issue and figure out what policy will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There’s no reason to expect that most members of the public understand the economics of trash collection, so their opinions on the “how” question are not especially useful.

What Council members need to focus on is satisfying the first order preference. They need to ask which market design will get the trash picked up cheapest and most frequently for the most people. Most importantly, they need to ask which policy will make the city the cleanest it can be overall.

The answer to both questions is a single trash hauler. Palmer just studied a bunch of different market designs for their trash market, and they found that single hauler with automated collection is the best value.

Council members should make this decision based on what the evidence says, not what the polls say. There are plenty of popular ideas out there that are terrible economics, but just because they poll well doesn’t mean they should become law.

Nobody likes being told their opinions are wrong, and many resent the implication that politicians know better than them, but that’s just how it is. An elected representative’s job, by definition, is to know better than you and make the policy decisions based on that superior knowledge. It’s useful to know how issues poll if you’re concerned about getting reelected, but if you’re concerned about making good decisions, you have to vote for what’s best according to your own personal understanding of the issues.

What Bethlehem Is Promising on Trash Collection

Daryl Nerl has a summary of the known details on Bethlehem’s single hauler proposal. Looks like I got it wrong before when I said it would be $300 + $60 for recycling. The $300 includes the $60 recycling fee:

The new cost would be no more than $300 per household, which includes the current $60 a year residents currently pay for recycling. That represents an average savings of $110 per household in the city. City officials have estimated that the average cost of private garbage collection in Bethlehem is currently $350, not including the city recycling fee.

The garbage cost is based in part on a tipping fee that the city has already bid. The new collector would not be bid out after the middle of 2013 and the new system would not take effect until October, which is when the city’s current recycling contract expires.

In a new contract, the hauler in addition to collecting garbage, would be collecting recycling and yard waste on alternating weeks as well as bulk items, freon items, grass and Christmas trees.

The city would keep roughly $500,000 of the garbage fee proceeds to help pay for the growing costs of maintaining its recycling programs, including the Theis/Cornfeld Center and free shredding. Without a garbage fee, the recycling programs currently represent a $540,000 hole in the budget.