Johnson City narrowly averted losing the right to maintain its exclusive franchise to use city containers at construction and demolition sites on Tuesday in Nashville when legislation to do just that finally died after an hour-long debate, saving the city about $1 million a year.
City Manager Pete Peterson got a chance to tell his side of the story, but he also was challenged for appearing leery of private enterprise and flatly called out by one legislator for being “afraid of competition.”
The state Senate already had unanimously passed a companion bill that would amend state law and allow private entities to provide a roll off construction or demolition debris container to anyone requesting the service regardless of whether the site was located in a municipality that had been granted an exclusive franchise.
At the end of a nearly four-hour House Local Government Committee meeting, chaired by state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough — who by the way had to remind committee members to keep their composure because things were getting “a little chippy” — Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, the bill’s sponsor, told members what he was trying to accomplish.
“We’re just trying to take a little government out of the issue and give it back to the people and allow private services to accommodate and work with the people,” he said. “Cities have monopolies on certain things like this.”
Johnson City is the only municipality in the state that has an exclusive franchise.
Peterson got his chance to speak when the committee went into recess.
He explained that in 1978, the Washington County Utility District was insolvent and bond holders asked the city to take over water, sewer and solid waste services. As a result the city has been providing solid waste services for the county, except Jonesborough.
“As far as I know, Johnson City is the only municipality this bill is directed at,” he said. “We’re very dependent on this revenue stream we have in place. The low-hanging fruit, or the easy money, is the roll offs, because you set the dumpster out, you go out with one truck and one person who takes it to the landfill.”
Peterson said the city’s Solid Waste Division is doing a “balancing act” to keep prices stable and to continue to move waste into the state-approved site.
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, who was one of four members voting to go forward with the bill, though it was defeated in a 10-4 vote, had a bit of a burr under his saddle about the city manager’s attitude and the fact that a public entity wanted so desperately to hang on to this service.
“You said something I take a little exception to,” Faison said. “It would seem like to me, from listening to you that you are afraid of competition. The private sector has every ability to provide this service. I would say that competition is a good thing. When I hear you tell us in committee that we have a franchise and we don’t want any competition — man, that makes me a little nervous.”
Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, asked Peterson what his response would be if someone told him that Johnson City has a monopoly.
“I could stand here and say we’ve got a monopoly on police service or fire service, but we provide these services because people ask us to,” Peterson responded. “By cherry-picking the most profitable piece of our system — that’s really going to hurt us.”
Peterson said all the city was trying to do was protect its investment. He also said the city did not grant itself an exclusive franchise; that was done by the state. He also said this status was challenged in federal court a few years ago, and the court upheld the city’s right to a franchise.
Faison asked to amend the bill by putting off the effective date for three years.
“This gives the city time to look at other options, but they would no longer have a franchise in 2016,” he said.
The amendment was adopted. But when a vote was taken on the bill in its entirety, it failed.
Hill noted a Johnson City Press article published Tuesday which pointed out that the Washington County Solid Waste Committee had recommended a $5.9 million, 10-year agreement with Waste Management to dump solid waste in Iris Glen Environmental Landfill.
The landfill is owned by the city, and Hill asked Peterson if the county’s move would “help things.”
“It will help take the sting out of things,” Peterson said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article omitted the word "losing" from the first paragraph.