BLOOMINGTON — The union representing the city of Bloomington's 35 solid waste employees is vowing to fight efforts to possibly replace them with private haulers.
As it considers ways to cut costs to close a $2.9 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts May 1, the City Council is looking at whether to authorize the city staff to explore outsourcing solid waste services to a private vendor.
"If they decide to even explore outsourcing, we would have the right to be a part of it every step of the way," said Renee Nestler of the statewide American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. "We would be issuing a demand-to-bargain letter."
The City Council is slated to vote on whether to study outsourcing during a special session at 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall.
While the council previously has considered reducing solid waste services, which also include brush, leaf and bulky waste collection, city solid waste workers were surprised by talk of the city getting out of the solid waste business.
"I don't believe they saw that was coming, nor was it something that had been suggested to them earlier as a solution," said Nestler.
The workers are worried about losing their jobs through outsourcing, she added.
"Every year, at budget time, it seems like it's always us they target," said Adam Smith, an 11-year city refuse collector who serves as president of the city's AFSCME Local 699.
"It's been going on and on and on, and it's been stressful," said Smith. "But outsourcing — that would mean the loss of jobs. The stress level is at its highest level."
"I don't want to see any of my fellow union members lose their jobs," said Local 699 union steward Jeremy Beutow, a 15-year public works employee who started out in the solid waste collection division and now works on street repairs. "It's stressful to me and I'm not even in the refuse division any more."
Solid waste collection costs the city about $7.4 million a year, but the fees collected from property owners leave an annual gap of about $1.1 million — about a third of the deficit.
Solid waste annual salaries range from $49,400 for a newly hired laborer to $61,568 for a truck driver to $74,089 for those who operate heavy machinery such as a front-end loader, Bloomington Public Works Director Jim Karch said.
At a Jan. 22 council meeting, Ward 7 Alderman Scott Black suggested voting on a resolution as a way to get outsourcing the service off the list of possible options if it doesn't pass. If it does pass, the city staff can at least explore it without the city committing to that course of action.
At that meeting, Karch suggested several cost-saving measures, including collecting bulk waste at the curbside once in the spring and once in the fall instead of on the current schedule of every other week, and consolidating the city's garbage and recycling collection teams to a morning shift and an evening shift.
Mayor Tari Renner and interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen had talked about no layoffs if the council were to change the service level, said Karch.
"We would try to use as many employees as we could on needed street and sewer work while we're trying to minimize the impact on our existing employees," he said. "That is if we changed the service level.
"If there were larger changes through outsourcing or privatization, the city might not be able minimize the impact on our employees in the same way," said Karch.
Karch and Nestler agreed that if the city were to outsource solid waste service there is no guarantee that those workers would keep their jobs.
"In fact, it seems more likely that our members would lose their jobs because a private company might have its own workers, and it may or may not hire the ones from the city," said Nestler. "That's an unknown in the full scenario, which is why our members are very concerned."
Current solid waste fees do not cover expenses, and both Bloomington and the town of Normal subsidize their costs.
Fiscal 2019 budget deficits — $4.25 million in Normal's $102.5 million budget and $2.9 million in Bloomington's $214 million fiscal plan — are forcing the municipalities to consider scaling back their levels of solid waste service, charging more to cover the true cost or outsourcing.
After discussing the idea at its annual budget workshop Jan. 18, the Normal City Council decided it has no interest in turning over its solid waste services to private haulers, said Normal Mayor Chris Koos.
Nestler said that about 25 percent of the solid waste bargaining unit has been employed by the city of Bloomington for 20 years or more.
"They've been around for a while so that explains why their wages are where they are at," said Nestler.