Portland, ME Lawmakers Consider Privatizing Trash Collection

Published June 29, 2016

Lawmakers in Portland, Maine are considering legislation that would return trash collection services to private-sector companies.

Addressing Portland citizens’ unhappiness with the city government’s administration of waste management services, the Portland City Council held a workshop in June to debate alternatives to the city’s current program. The city government has fielded numerous complaints from taxpayers about litter caused by the city’s recycling program, rising prices for trash disposal, and video footage of government employees disposing of recyclables as garbage. 

Track Record of Success

Liam Sigaud, a policy analyst at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, says privatizing trash collection has worked successfully in many other cities.

“The many cities that have adopted a private-trash-collection model have almost uniformly seen improvements in service quality and cost savings,” Sigaud said. “The reason is simple: Private enterprise has an incentive to provide efficient, effective services that public employees, often protected by union contracts, lack.”

‘Spurs Innovation’

Sigaud says private companies are incentivized to do better work at lower cost, a stimulus government agencies lack.

“The private sector often spurs innovation and entrepreneurship in a way that unwieldy public works departments do not,” Sigaud said.

E.S. Savas, a professor at Baruch College and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, says many city governments have gotten out of the trash collection business, allowing private businesses to do the job better for less money.

“About 50 percent of American cities do contract out for solid waste services,” Savas said. “Studies show that municipal collection runs about 30 percent more [expensive] than [contracted] collection [and is performed] at the same level of quality of service.”

Better Quality Control

Savas says privatization actually gives government officials more power to ensure citizens are receiving high-quality services.

“Public officials have learned that they have much greater control over a private contractor than they have over their own civil service or unionized workforce,” Savas said.

Need to Stand Up to Unions

Savas says resistance to municipal privatization is motivated by political fear and lack of will.

“The largest cities, [such as] New York [and] Chicago, don’t contract out, although enormous amounts of money could be saved,” Savas said. “The political power of the public-employee union is so great that no mayor dare do that.”

Ben Johnson ([email protected]) writes from Stockport, Ohio.

Internet Info:

Robert W. Poole, et al., “Privatization of Public-Sector Services in Practice: Experience and Potential,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, July 1, 1987: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/privatization-public-sector-services-practice-experience-and-potential/