Manatee County renews $140 million in sanitation contracts

MANATEE -- The Manatee County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to extend sanitation contracts worth $140 million through 2023 rather than going through a competitive bidding process for new deals.

No one said services provided to Manatee County residents the past seven years have not been good, but many disagreed on extending such large contracts with Waste Management and Waste Pro without an open bidding process.

Public opinion at the meeting was split with about half the speakers encouraging the commission to renew the contracts with the two companies. Other speakers chastised commissioners for not allowing smaller haulers to compete through open bidding.

Business owner Tim Horton, who said he hopes to expand into Manatee County next year, said competitive bidding is "the only way to know the value ... and allows those who care to offer alternative and lower prices. It's not a reflection on your service provider you have now. It's a reflection on the value of the contract being offered."

Community businesses and organizations included representatives of Tropicana, Keep Manatee Beautiful and Manatee Memorial -- all in support of renewing existing contracts.

Supporters of smaller hauling companies such as Willie Lawson, a self-described independent blogger, said Manatee County deserves transparency.

"I bet all of you in your campaigns promised transparency," he said. "The process needs to be transparent. ... If you don't have open bidding, this goes back to a time when deals were made in back rooms."

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said a public misperception has taken hold through the course of the sanitation talks.

"We did a long bid process seven years ago and this is an extension of that (request for proposal)," said Whitmore. "It was a very rough process, and we finally decided to split the county in half, and in the last seven years I have never received one complaint about either hauler."

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said it wasn't just county staff recommending renewal. He cited the Kessler Consulting Firm recommendation to renew the county contracts based on a review of services and rates "to their own financial detriment because they make money assisting in RFPs, but they know we are receiving very good rates and we have negotiated to keep those costs in place, plus the two haulers are investing $5 million in recycling containers. Our contracts that this board entered into years ago were very good contracts."

Hunzeker said renewing the contracts is part of the original deal and is based on whether the two haulers have provided quality service.

Commissioner Betsy Benac dismissed any notion the commission is not being transparent.

"The idea that we have to open up this bid to be transparent doesn't make sense when in 2007 this process was transparent and it was presented with this renewal option," she said. "Everything was specific in this contract. You may not like it, but that does not mean it's not transparent."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said the previous commission "did what the people wanted, so I'm all in favor of that. If it's not broken, let's not try to fix it."

The contracts call for the county to open the bidding process when they expire in 2023.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.