Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Contemplates Privatizing or Automating Garbage Pick Up

A garbage truck is put to work in New Orleans area. (Source: WClarke via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mayor Randall Woodfin urged councilors to consider either automating or outsourcing Birmingham’s garbage pickup program during a special-called meeting of the City Council Thursday night, arguing that it is unsustainable in its current form.

In a joint presentation with the city’s public works, legal and finance departments, Woodfin called for the city to either “engage an experienced refuse management service” — an image of a Waste Management  truck was used in an accompanying slideshow — or to “automate the city’s refuse collection fleet by purchasing 20 side loaders and adding tipper (trucks) to (the) existing fleet.”

Both options would provide significant cost savings to the city amid an economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, he said, though he added that the need for change predated the pandemic. Shifting to a new method, Woodfin said, would increase employee safety and pickup efficiency, and, he assured councilors, it would not lead to any of the city’s 86 refuse collection employees being laid off.

“No one will be fired,” he said, offering to “pinky swear” with Council President Pro Tempore Wardine Alexander. “These employees will remain employees. They will just be reimagined or shifted to another area within the (public works) department.”

In fact, Public Works Director Ralph DeBardlabon Jr. argued, the change would improve employee morale by reducing injuries on the job. DeBardlabon noted that close to half of garbage collection employees were on limited duty due to injuries they’d sustained on the job.

If garbage pickup continues on its current path, Finance Director Lester Smith told councilors, the program’s cost will grow over the next five years, from roughly $7 million this year to an expected $8.2 million in 2024. Switching to a privatized pickup system would net a projected $11.8 million in savings over the next five years, he said, while switching to an automated system would save the city roughly $4.9 million in the same timeframe. The automated system would require between $7 million and $8 million in upfront capital costs to purchase new equipment, Smith added.

Smith stressed that the proposal “is not a detailed plan,” and was, instead, intended to gauge the council’s appetite for such a change. “Going down the current path is not an option,” he said. “Both (alternatives) still warrant investigation … . I think we need to give equal weight to both of these, but we need to do it sooner rather than later.”

Woodfin asked the council to consider the proposal and reconvene in two weeks to “take a deeper dive” into the issue.

Several councilors, including District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams and District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott, reacted positively about the proposed changes.

Williams called switching to a third-party pick-up service a “no-brainer.”

“I hate how some people are afraid of the word ‘privatization,’ but we’re at a situation where we need to find some efficiencies as a city,” Williams said. “We have third-party contracts in just about every single department in the city of Birmingham. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t consider it for this.”

Abbott added that, while previous administrations had considered changes to garbage pick-up, “the deal-killer was always people losing their jobs, so the guarantee that there will be no one losing their job is good.”

District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt was not present at the meeting, but he expressed his displeasure with the plan in the comments section of the meeting’s Facebook live stream, writing that Woodfin was “selling the city!!!!” and calling on residents to protest the proposed changes.

“He wants to privatize public work …. wake up people!” he wrote.