Kent’s recycling service sparked debate, but council moves toward Republic deal

The Portage County Solid Waste Management District. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

Kent City Council declined to fast-track a deal that would switch residential recycling services to a private hauler, postponing a final decision that’s expected in June.

The question involves whether to end the city’s long-standing relationship with the Portage County Solid Waste Management District and switch to a lower-cost deal with Republic Services that would provide biweekly recycling pickup for five years.

Republic already holds the city’s weekly trash pickup contract. That company offered $3 per resident per month, compared with the county’s current price of $5.50 per resident per month. The county recycling center did not submit a bid.

Recycling center Director Dawn Collins said she was disappointed and considers the move a disservice to citizens of Kent.

“We’re local. We care. We are service oriented. We’re accountable, and we’re not profit-driven,” Collins said.

Speaking directly to council, Rockwell Street resident Mark Seeman said choosing Republic invites a number of potential pitfalls, including loss of local control. He worried Kent might find itself in a weak negotiating position in the future, and suggested the county not submitting a bid might have been due to a misunderstanding.

“Just to look at it as a Kent problem, and to say, as some on council have said, that their concern is with the citizens of Kent, the taxpayers of Kent, and … that the county is kind of on their own, might be a short sighted perspective because the city and county must get along,” he said.

South Chestnut Street resident Tim Krasselt also urged council to stay with the county, noting that for-profit providers are not always as easy to work with as they first appear.

“In Kent we’ve always stressed supporting our local businesses, and I think supporting the county recycling program is a big part of that. I would just like you to consider staying local,” he told council.

If council approves the Republic contract, the county recycling center will remove residents’ blue 95-gallon carts with June’s final pickup, Collins said, noting that she anticipates a lengthy transition. Republic will distribute its bins at about the same time, she said.

Kent residents are still welcome to participate in Portage County Solid Waste Management District events such as e-waste collections, tire collections, residential document and paper shredding, yard waste, and food compost programs, County Administrator Michelle Crombie said in a May 18 email.

In light of council’s expected decision, Collins said it will be challenging to determine the recycling district’s future offerings. Extending curbside service to other communities is one option, as is offering commercial recycling services, she said.

“You are going to overcome this setback,” Crombie told Collins in an email sent after the meeting. “Hang in there!”

Council debate

Council members Heidi Shaffer Bish, Robin Turner and Tracy Wallach prevented council from fast-tracking the decision to choose Republic, instead requiring the legislation to be heard during three separate meetings.

“I think people are just learning about this situation where we’re essentially talking about getting a divorce from the Portage County recycling center, and I think this … really calls for more public comment, more discussion, and maybe some other options could emerge,” Shaffer Bish said.

Council set a special meeting June 7, when the legislation will be heard on second reading.

Anticipating council’s expected vote, Wallach asked her colleagues to rescind the city’s April 28 letter to the recycling district in which Kent gave notice it would be canceling the recycling contract. Since council had an ongoing contract “that seemed to be working” with the county, legislators may have erred in seeking recycling bids, Shaffer Bish said.

As Kent Law Director Hope Jones nodded her head, Shaffer Bish said it would be legal for Kent to start a new bidding process.

“I think that the best interest of the community … is to keep this service local,” Shaffer Bish said. “We have a representative that sits on the [recycling center] board from our council. You can’t get more transparent than that. We won’t have representation on the board of a private entity.”

Saying she regretted her committee vote to procure bids, Shaffer Bish said she now fears “that down the road we’re going to regret this, and one of the things I see down the road is that we’re going to have to start all over some day with a new recycling system.”

Wallach directed city administrators to “come up with another way that we can support the Portage County recycling center and all the other free services they provide, maybe with a grant or something like that.”

Put to a vote, Wallach’s request failed, with support only from herself, Shaffer Bish, Turner, and Jack Amrhein.

Council Member Roger Sidoti asked what the Portage County commissioners are doing that Kent would have to give a grant to the Portage County recycling center.

“Where is their active support of that recycling center? And now you want us to have our citizens not only pay for the service, they want to provide an additional grant? I think this is idiocy. I think the problem lies right in Ravenna, Ohio,” he said.

Shaffer Bish said she preferred to look at any grant as a kind of support that would continue a long-standing partnership.

Supporting Shaffer Bish and Wallach, Turner said council should explore how it could stabilize the county recycling center.

“This is not about money all the time. We get caught up in it,” he said. “There’s another value associated with recycling in the City of Kent. Study community history. I’m at a loss that this is even a discussion right now.”

If Kent was really concerned about saving constituents’ money, council wouldn’t have spent $1.25 million to change the color of the paint at the city jail, he said.

Garret Ferrara, though, repeated other council members’ comments that “you can’t give a contract to a bid that was never made.”

Amrhein said he voted in committee two weeks ago to reject Republic’s recycling bid. Upon reflection, though, the council member said he now supports handing the contract to that company.

“We legally can’t enter into a contract with a company who did not bid unless we reject the bids,” he said, noting that, “if we reject the bids, I would assume that we’re going to be sued by all the other companies that placed bids. We are the stewards of the tax dollars.”

Council is bound to do “what we’re supposed to do, not what we’d like to do,” Council Member John Kuhar said. “Our obligation is to get the best service for the best value for the people we represent.”

Sidoti wondered why in March, when council started the bid process, the county commissioners didn’t direct Collins to submit one even if it would have been for the current $5.50 monthly rate.

“My hope is that we keep this local because there’s an added value to keeping it local. There’s a historic linkage to … the Kent Environmental Council and other people here that actually created the solid waste district. I don’t want to see that go away. That has tremendous value,” he said.

The bid specs

Referring to the bids council received, Collins noted that Republic intended to charge $3 for biweekly recycling service for the remainder of this year, $3.15 next year, $3.31 in 2025, $3.47 in 2026 and $3.65 in 2027.

She downplayed Republic’s low rates for the later part of the contract, saying commercial firms have a way of increasing their rates midstream. Already, she said, Republic has increased the recycling center’s commercial trash disposal rate from $25.74 to $27.54 per ton, effective July 1.

In November 2021, when the recycling center standardized all its contracts, Collins said Republic bid $5.35 for biweekly recycling service. Since then, all costs, from fuel and labor to processing, have increased, so Collins wondered how the company’s $3 bid could be “an accurate reflection to provide the cost of service.”

Kimble’s biweekly recycling rate came in at $4.65 this year and $4.79 next year. Rumpke’s rates were $5.55 this year and $5.74 next year. Waste Management did not proffer a bid.

“The lowest price is not always the best price,” Collins said. “This shows that Portage County’s rate of $5.50 is a competitive rate, and that rate will not change unless we were to have three public hearings. We know that Portage County is not the highest price, and our service cannot be beat.”

Pre-meeting fact check

Prior to the meeting, City Manager Dave Ruller sent an email to council members, council clerk Amy Wilkens, Service Director Melanie Baker, and Kent police administrative assistant Patti Long in which he said he wanted to fact check various concerns about the recycling service bids.

In the email, Ruller stated that the city had acted properly in terminating its contract with the county, and that the city not only followed Ohio bidding procedures, but “an extra effort was extended to include Portage County Recycling in the bid process.

“The recycling contract has a one-year term with renewal or termination options that were followed, and there is no clause in the contract that prohibited the county from bidding on this contract,” Ruller wrote.

Ruller stated that the city was “clear and consistent” that it hoped for cost savings from a combined trash and recycling pickup bid, but that all bids were welcome. He directed council to base its decision specifically on the bidders’ terms for curbside recycling as “commenting on and referencing services outside those terms could … open the city to a lawsuit.”

Dismissing claims that the city should be willing to pay more for curbside recycling because of its longstanding relationship with the county recycling center, Ruller stated that council should only consider the bid prices and conformance to the bid specs.

He noted that the county “unilaterally” broke its contract three times in five years, and each time the city was forced to amend the contract or lose recycling.

“Local control through a County contract had not been evident,” Ruller stated.

He also assured council that Republic is under “multiple legal requirements” ensuring that recyclables are actually recycled, not landfilled. The city will receive monthly reports to prove the law is being followed, he stated.

The $3 per month cost Republic bid includes the cost of new bins, and service will continue to be provided on a biweekly basis, Ruller stated.

Disputing claims that people will recycle less with Republic as a hauler, “the city could at least consider a return to weekly collection,” Ruller said.

However, Republic’s bid of $6 for weekly pickup is double that of biweekly pickup.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.