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County may dump local garbage collectors with much to lose

August 20, 2018 GMT

EDINBURG — The owners of three small companies that haul trash from county residents are worried they may be forced to shut their doors if the county follows through on a proposal to privatize the service.

Hidalgo County commissioners put out a request for proposals in May for a solid waste collection program, and based on its language, it appears the county is searching for a contractor equipped to handle the entire scope of the rural area.

For the owners of 3A Disposal, All Valley Waste and RGV Metro Waste, the proposal presents a problem. The small businesses — which provide curbside trash pickup for residents living outside city limits — are not big enough to compete for the bid.

“If you want to open up a company right now, you can do it” said Paula Villanueva, owner of All Valley Waste. “But once that RFP goes into effect and the county decides they only want one company, then the open market goes out the door, and so do we.”

County officials, however, contend it’s too early in the process to determine how many companies they will allow to operate in the county if they privatize the system.

“It is premature to say that the county is committed to contracting with one vendor for this project,” county officials said in a prepared statement. “The RFP states that the county reserves the right to make changes, award the proposal to one or to multiple vendors.”

But for Rodolfo Trevino, owner of RGV Metro Waste, the right to make changes is not enough to calm his nerves.

“In the RFP it states that we have to be able to do the whole county,” he said. “It’s very hard to believe stuff like that when you’re not seeing it on paper.”

The small businesses are no stranger to the issue. In 2013, they successfully fought Hidalgo County commissioners when they first attempted to privatize the system as a cost-saving measure.

Currently, the county spends over $6.3 million to run 13 solid waste transfer stations located throughout the county where rural residents can personally dump their trash for a nominal fee of $6.25 per month. But the permit fees only bring in about $1 million in revenue to the county.

For residents, dumping their trash at transfer stations is cheaper than contracting with small businesses that provide curbside services, but it’s less convenient. Those without a proper mode of transporting their waste are at the mercy of small companies like Villanueva’s to provide the service.

About 15 years ago, rural residents didn’t have that option, Villanueva said.

“When we started the company, we were working in the county because there was nobody that was servicing the county back then,” she said.

Each year since then, she’s been knocking on doors trying to build up clientele.

“For the county to now say all of these accounts are no longer yours, they belong to this other company — and we’ve worked so hard to get there,” Villanueva said. “They’re handing it to them in a silver platter. That’s pretty much what they’re doing.”

All Valley Waste currently services over 5,000 households across the county, and as the company grows, so does the need to invest in equipment.

“Every year we buy new trucks, so right now we have five new trucks,” Villanueva said, “This year we were ready to purchase one in November, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll probably have to file for bankruptcy if this goes through and we’ve been in business for 15 years.”

Bankruptcy would also be an option for Alfredo Alaniz and Olga Cantu, owners of 3A Disposal.

“In order to establish our small companies, we acquire debts,” Cantu said. “When you buy a truck — unless you’re a millionaire — you don’t buy it in cash. You have to make monthly payments.”

The various owners said the specialized vehicles, which carry upward of 30 tons, cost them between $200,000 and $350,000 a piece.

“They’re not thinking of us and our losses, and the losses of those who work for us, because that’s how they maintain their families,” Cantu said.

“We have 22 employees that would be left without a job,” Villanueva said.

“We have 14,” Trevino interjected. “We just purchased two trucks ourselves this year. So there’s no way we could keep paying for those trucks.”

Larger cities like McAllen and Edinburg fund and operate their own solid waste services, while others like Pharr outsource it to other companies.

“We can work, but there’s a lot of politics,” Villanueva’s husband Santos said. “If you don’t know an insider, they’re not going to let you in. They already know who they’re going to put in.”

The couple pointed to the ongoing legal battle between Rio Grande City and Allied Waste Services after the city terminated the contract with the company and instead hired Grande Garbage, a company owned by the mayor’s campaign treasurer.

“One of the compadres of Grande Garbage became the mayor so he gave them the contract without cancelling with Republic,” Paula Villanueva said, referencing Allied Waste’s new name. “They didn’t go through the proper legal steps to cancel, so then the city ended up having two containers.”

“We need the support of the commissioners so we can continue to work,” Cantu said.

The owners have already voiced their concerns with commissioners David Fuentes and Joe Flores, who they described as sympathetic to their plight. Commissioners also met Thursday to discuss the issue.

“The county has made a good faith effort to hear the concerns of small business owners and residents and will proceed in the best interest of our taxpayers,” county officials said in the prepared statement. “County leaders are committed to evaluating the proposals and evaluating the impact to all residents of Hidalgo County.”

The owners said they are willing to make changes, invest in any necessary equipment and adopt uniform pricing in order to stay in business. They are also willing to pay the 5 percent franchise feel the county is asking for in the RFP, as it is authorized to do so under Texas Senate Bill 352.

“If that’s what it takes to stay in business, we’ll pay the franchise fee, which is what we’re doing in McAllen,” Villanueva said. “We’re able to work in McAllen with the commercial containers (only). Every month, I submit a report and I send them a check.”

She also suggested commissioners split the workload into precincts if they chose to privatize.

“That way we all get a better chance at bidding whatever precinct you want,” Villanueva said. “But not the county as a whole, cause that would leave us completely out.”

The owners believe only two companies operating in the area could handle such a workload, Republic and Waste Connections, both large companies that offer services throughout the United States.

“Our companies are locally-owned companies,” the owner of All Valley Waste said. “They have to keep us in business. They can’t be that cold because, I mean, we’re the ones that have been there when nobody has been there. Nobody wanted to service the county residents. And then we started, and now they see that there’s money in it.”

Hidalgo County commissioners will continue to review the issue and have extended the submittal deadline, which was originally set for Aug. 15, to Aug. 29 in order to give companies more time to prepare their bids.

“We’re stressing out because of this,” Trevino said. “That’s our livelihood. That’s what we work for.”