COVINGTON, Ga. - Citing concerns about rising landfill costs and an aging fleet of garbage trucks, the Covington City Council gave City Manager Leigh Anne Knight the go-ahead to pursue bids to privatize the city's trash collection during the council's annual retreat Tuesday afternoon.
Covington city employees are currently responsible for picking up residential and commercial solid waste in the city.
Knight told members based on anticipated expenses the city has a $421,000 loss looming for solid waste in the coming fiscal year.
In a statement Wednesday, Knight said, "We strive to offer citizens a variety of services and we work hard to provide those services at the highest level possible.
“As city manager, it is my job to look out for the financial welfare of the city and if the sale of sanitation services were to happen, the city would be stronger financially compared to how we are currently operating.”
Officials at all levels expressed concern about the 23 city employees who would be affected by the privatization of the service.
Mayor Ronnie Johnston said taking care of those employees is a top priority.
“If we do reach an agreement with an outside vendor to facilitate the solid waste pickup in the city limits, it will be the mission of the city manager, city council and myself to ensure every employee impacted has opportunities after their tenure at the city,” he said. “We take the prosperity of our employees very seriously.”
Knight echoed Johnston’s sentiments.
“This is a major decision that affects every citizen financially, but we are also looking at the livelihood of 23 employees in the sanitation department,” she said. ”It appears that financially, privatization makes great sense, however just as we care for our neighbors in our community, we also deeply care about our employees. Those employees have my promise they will have a variety of options if needed.”
Knight also said that residents should not expect to see changes any time soon.
“This will be a lengthy process because we want to properly vet those who respond to our RFP (request for proposals),” she said. “We currently have a responsibility to our existing customers and we will ensure that if an RFP is accepted, customers will see no decline in their service. Respondents will, at a minimum, include all services currently offered by the city and possibly additional amenities like bulk waste pickup.”
Johnston and Knight, joined by Councilmembers Susie Keck and Josh McKelvey, met with employees Friday morning in the breakroom at sanitation headquarters to discuss the possible change and reassure them that the city will do all it can to help them through any transition.
Keck told the employees “You are the most important part of this. When the discussion was opened, the council said ‘what about the people?’ And you will be in the forefront.
“When the council makes this decision, the decision will be made knowing that you will be taken care of.”
McKelvey said the council did not take the decision to pursue privatization lightly.
“We understood fully what was going to happen,” he said. "We know there are people who have just come on with the City of Covington in this department and we know that there are employees who have been here for a long time.
“That doesn’t matter. Regardless of if you just you’ve just been here or have been here 20 years, we want to make sure that you are treated as fairly and as humanely as possible and that we work with you guys to get you onboard with the new company that takes us over or get you the training and assistance that you might need to help you get even possibly a better position than you’re at right now.
“We’re going to go above and beyond what most companies would do in situations like this. I just want you all to know that. I promise you that.”
McKelvey also asked the employees to refrain from making social media posts implying that the council does not care about them.
“The one thing I want to ask you guys to do. I know there are people who are not happy with the decision- I wouldn’t necessarily be happy hearing that news either,” he said. "I would ask that you guys work with us. Wait until the final decisions are all made before you go on Facebook and start talking bad about your council and saying that we don’t care about you because it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I do appreciate what y’all do. You are the backbone of this city and we want to make sure that we help you.”
Some employees expressed concern they that they had not previously been told how bad the department’s finances were. Johnston said the conversation about sanitation started in 2013.
“From that point forward, it was something that, as politicians, we tend to do sometimes. We like to kick things down the road because we’re more worried about our employees and those types of things which are important, but that issue was kicked down the road,” he said.
“Now we’ve had some changes, obviously in some of the council and we looked at it and said we can do better. And we can do better. But when we say that, that means we can do better for every individual in this room. What you really should be upset with is that we’ve hand-tied y’all with poor equipment - not investing enough, because we didn’t have enough money. And because of the goodness of the people sitting in this room, y’all have saved our butts and made it look really good by working your tails off.”
Johnston told the employees the process was just starting.
“But the bottom line in this process that we’ve initiated- and it’s just a process we’re going to go through. If we get four or five bids and they don’t take care of our people and all of those kind of things that we want, we won’t do it,” he said, “That’s all we’re doing. We’re seeing what’s out in the marketplace right now.”
Johnston also said he understood the employees concerns and echoed McKelvey’s request that the employees give the process a chance to work.
“It’s change, and change is a scary thing. But change can be awesome, too“ he said,” Right now is the time that we all need to stick together because I’m telling you that we’re very genuine about what we feel about what you all have done.
“And from this point forward, my goal is to make sure that all 23 people in here not only have a job, but I’ll even go as far to say have a better job that gives you more opportunities than you have now.”
Solid Waste Manager Tammie Lovering said she and her staff found over $100,000 in revenue that wasn’t being collected and have worked to find more money to put the department on more solid footing.
“Sixteen months ago when I came over here, we sat here and we talked and I told you what we were going to do is try to pull it out of a hole. We were going to do everything we could as a group to get it pulled out of a hole”, she said,” And we have. We’ve worked on it. We’ve worked on it diligently. I’ve never heard anything negative about anybody in this group at city hall. I’ve never heard anything negative from the citizens. Y’all do bust your butts. We all know it.”
Johnston said ultimately, the city council will make the call on whether the service is privatized.
“As we go through this process, there are six people who are going to make this final vote on what we do based on all of the information,” he said.
Johnston also said in spite of what’s being written on social media, the city is not trying to make a profit on trash.
“People kept using the word ‘profitability’, it’s not profitable,” he said, “This is not about profit. We’re a government entity. We’re not a separate business. We’re not trying to make a profit.”
“This is not about trying to make money. It’s about being as efficient as we possibly can. That’s why as elected officials we owe it to each other and to this community to see how efficiently we can do things. That’s all we’re doing right now.”
Knight said any change might be as long as a year away.
“We will not have the RFP and the results back for at least 60 days and then it will take another 30 days for a review of that,” she said,” So you’re not looking for anything to go to the council to review before 90 days. And then it could take until the end of the year to figure out the whole process and begin to make a transition.”
Knight also said she would keep employees informed with monthly updates.