The Tipping Point: City of Dallas Plays Unfairly in Competition Over Trash Dumping

When Dallas City Hall decides to compete with you in your business, watch out, because they don't really have to compete. They just pass laws. The controversy over so-called "flow control" is a great example.

Flow control is a move to force trash-haulers to stop taking trash to commercial landfills outside the city and use only the city's landfill at McCommas Bluff instead.

Why would the city want to keep the trash? They have a cover story to the effect that it's all about green recycling, but their own internal memorandums betray that the green recycling thing is bullshit. There is no recycling technology available or on the visible horizon to handle this much trash and turn a profit.

In fact one memo, sent November 8, 2010, by Rick White, manager of the McCommas Landfill, to Ron Smith, assistant director of Dallas's sanitation department, gives the real reason for the whole flow control deal: "We can disguise and misdirect the issue all we want," White tells his boss. But White says "the reality" is one bullet-point in a city briefing describing the reasons for flow control: "Increase revenue to Sanitation Services."

Tipping fees. The amount a trash hauler pays to dump a load. That's the deal here. City Hall is desperate for more tipping fees, more revenue. Every time a trash-hauler takes a load of trash out of Dallas and pays to dump it in a commercial landfill, City Hall loses a dumping fee.

So what's the problem with the city trying to capture all those fees? Two problems. Why. And how.

City Hall isn't a company. It's not a business. It has many more responsibilities than businesses have. It has a responsibility to the neighborhoods around McCommas Bluff, who are not happy with this scheme to bring more trucks down their road.

The city has a responsibility to its residents not to amass the world's biggest garbage dump before we really know if that would be an asset, as the city glibly claims, or a huge liability.

But there is also the matter of how the city goes about things. If the city were a business, it would have to use simple competition to get this new business -- slash rates, advertise, help people find new girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever. But the city doesn't have to do any of that. It can just pass a law.

The city wants to act like a business in terms of pursuing new revenue, but it wants to act like a city when it comes to getting it done -- pass a law, then fine anybody who breaks it. And when you come to the other side of normal public policy -- gathering input and building consensus -- the city wants to act not merely like a business but like a garbage company.

That's why they hired a guy from the garbage business, Jim Lattimore, formerly of Waste Management Inc, to handle the input side of it. This is the text of an email sent out by Lattimore to businesses and people who wanted to debate flow control with him.

Bottom line? No debates allowed.

I don't have a date for this memo, but I did send the text to Lattimore yesterday, and he did confirm for me that it was his email.

In the email, Lattimore lays out his rules for a meeting in which interested residents and companies in Dallas will be allowed to discuss this issue with him:

"The following are my ground rules; Since this is not 'on the record', no recordings of the meeting will be made other than personal notes. Attendees are limited to no more than two from each company, no lawyers, lobbyists or pr consultants. The agenda is for discovery of constructive information, if it becomes a debate, we'll end the meeting."

Wow. You really cannot act that way if you're the city. You can't tell people you'll walk out of the meeting if they disagree with you. Of course, Lattimore is not the city. He's a business guy, and he comes from a tough business.

The Observer wrote about Lattimore 16 years ago when he was involved in the Skyline Landfill controversy in Ferris. There were allegations of public corruption and an FBI investigation in the Skyline case, but as far as I can tell nobody was ever charged with anything.

I also have the impression that Lattimore is a respected professional in his industry. It just happens to be a very tough industry. Trash is trash. It's full of rats, maggots and vultures. But it's gotta go somewhere. So the people who make a living picking it up and taking it somewhere have to be a little bit tough.

I'm not faulting Lattimore for promoting flow control or any of the commercial trash-haulers for fighting it. That's all business.

But City Hall is not a business. It has greater responsibilities than a business, and it also has unfair advantages over businesses. City Hall is pursuing this flow control thing as a business would -- as a way to grab some more revenue -- but it's trying to use its status as a government to get what it wants, by passing laws. They want to do it by fiat, not by competition.

Something in this picture just ain't right.

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