Elkader Council votes to renew Hawkeye Sanitation contract a year early

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


A new contract with Hawkeye Sanitation took up a significant portion of the latest Elkader City Council meeting, with questions raised about pricing, a dumpster monopoly and the need for renewing the contract at all, considering the current one has a year remaining.   


Council members raising the issue over why now included Tony Hauber and Deb Schmidt, with Hauber questioning, on several instances, the necessity of doing it with a year remaining on the contract, a stance with which Schmidt agreed. The crux of Hauber’s question was about the rising cost, which will be higher than the anticipated 3-percent rise built into the current contract for 2024.


“The rates we’re going to see next year are substantially higher than 3 percent across the board,” Hauber said. “I’m not sure why we’re doing this right now.”


On the issue of price increases, Hauber is not entirely off base. According to Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert, under the current contract, the household family rate is $18.13, but in the contract discussed at the meeting, it would increase to $21.38. Similarly, the cost for recycling will jump from $4.84 to $10.14.


The impetus behind the early contract renewal is due to the totes Hawkeye will deliver to every resident and a contract clause that initiated when those totes were ready for delivery, which Hawkeye claimed they were. However, the delivery of those totes was an issue raised by council member Randy Henning, who questioned when they would be delivered. Would it coincide with the new contract or would Hawkeye wait for warmer weather?


Hawkeye representatives suggested they’d like to deliver totes as soon as possible. The earliest that could occur, given the pace of government, is sometime in November, assuming the new contract passes all three readings. 


The totes have been a minor issue for months, with Hawkeye acknowledging it has a storage unit full of them and Henning questioning why they weren’t delivered previously if that was the case. Hawkeye’s reasoning was simply that it did not want to deliver them prior to receiving a new contract because of the expense and substantial work involved in picking them back up should the city decide to go with a different company next year.


“We needed a contract to cover the existing service, but the council had received a presentation on changing to totes and approved of that concept. So they knew the totes would be ready sometime during the current contract and chose to write the contract that way.  One, to cover the existing service and then open it back up when the totes were ready,” Cowsert explained.


Hauber spoke out about the increased rates, arguing, “I don’t know how I can go to my constituents and tell them we’re going to have to charge you more and we’re going to give you this big tote…I don’t know how I can justify it.”


In defense of the increased rates, Hawkeye representatives mentioned their intent to make a long-term investment in the community, including the totes, building, truck fleet and equipment, all of which come with higher costs attached. Additionally, Hawkeye referenced financial feasibility, which might not exist if the current rates were retained, while stating, “we’re looking to make a long-term investment…knowing that we’re gonna be here for at least the time to get some of our debt paid back.”


While understanding, Hauber remained undeterred. He wondered how to justify such an increase when “money is the tightest,” before questioning whether the deal presented was competitive in comparison to other sanitation companies, to which Hawkeye replied, “If they’re being honest.”


Cowsert provided some information about previous requests for proposals as recently as 2021. At that time, proposals were similar to Hawkeye’s, but in regard to the contract the council was discussing, no requests for proposals were done to gauge its competitiveness.


However, the price increase wasn’t Hauber’s only point of contention. The other was what he called a “monopoly on commercial dumpsters.”


“If your rates are competitive, like you’re saying they are, why do you want to, why are we instituting a city enforced monopoly on commercial dumpsters?” Hauber asked.


This issue started over a difference of interpretation in the current contract on Hawkeye being the exclusive provider for heavy commercial customers, something the new contract clarifies, making Hawkeye the exclusive provider. In justifying this, Hawkeye representatives argued that not doing so leads to rate differences among customers when they use different companies. It also leads to companies picking and choosing whom they will cater to, meaning increased cost for others. Having one provider leads to more uniform rates.


Currently, there are about 30 dumpsters in the city, with around eight serviced by a company other than Hawkeye. According to Cowsert, there is nothing illegal about it, at least not as far as Hawkeye’s and the city’s legal counsel is concerned. 


Cowsert also noted most cities contract with a single hauler for garbage collection, though she was uncertain whether that extends to dumpsters. One thing she mentioned was how having one company is “advantageous to the city” because it will reduce the amount of large trucks on the streets and in the alleys during the week.


Should the new contract make it past the next two readings, current businesses utilizing a dumpster from a company other than Hawkeye will have a grace period until Jan. 1, 2026 to switch to Hawkeye.


As for the long-awaited totes, they are estimated to hold between five and 10 bags of garbage. Whatever doesn’t fit will need to be put into a separate bag for pickup, which can be purchased for $5 at city hall.


Throughout the discussion, Hauber remained a voice opposed, stating, “I can’t justify this to people yet.” 


Hauber voted against the new contract, while Peggy Lane, Schmidt, and Henning all voted in favor, which means, between now and Jan. 1, when the new contract takes effect, should it make it through two more readings, residents will receive garbage and recycling totes and increased prices.

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