While garbage piled higher and higher in the South Bay and elsewhere two weeks ago, government officials could only hope that the private trash-hauling companies and the striking Teamsters would reach agreement.
The operation of a key municipal service lay in the hands of private businesses and their employees--beyond the control of local authorities for the most part.
As a strike, it was a short affair, settled four days after it began. But it was the first garbage strike in the area in memory and it affected more than 675,000 people, 15 municipalities and three unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Calls from irate citizens flooded city switchboards.
City officials generally said they were satisfied with company efforts to collect garbage during the strike, but the work stoppage has nevertheless made some ponder plans for the next one.
In the gated Palos Verdes Peninsula municipality of Rolling Hills, for example, the city's contract with Browning-Ferris Industries covers hauling away horse manure, but it does not cover the city in case of a strike, according to June Cunningham, acting city manager.
Cunningham reported "unhappiness on the council" when members found out after the fact that the Teamsters had been working for some time without a contract.
"There was some feeling that we should have been advised" by Browning-Ferris, she said.
The strike reopened the politically charged questions about contracting of municipal services--whether private enterprise can do the same job more cheaply than public employees, and whether a private enterprise can be as accountable to the public.
In Torrance, where the city collects garbage, Street Maintenance Supt. Richard Garcia defended his city's system.
"They claim that it is initially cheaper with contracts. We find that they are paying close to what we are paying," he said.
The advantage of using city employees is that "it gives us a lot of control and a lot of flexibility that we couldn't impose on private people. We couldn't tell a private contractor to go back and pick up someone because they put (garbage) out late. People like that.
"The council . . . felt that cities were put together to provide public service . . . and they wanted control over it. Those were the key issues."
Officials in some smaller cities, however, say that the problems of buying and maintaining a few garbage trucks outweigh the benefits of a city sanitation department.
"We'd love to have local control, but financially it is impossible for us to do anything but contract out," said Gardena City Manager Kenneth M. Landau.
"I don't think . . . that you can justify the cost of having your own trash service," said Bill Grove, building and safety director for Hermosa Beach, a city affected by the strike.
Lawndale Ponders Change
Lawndale went to a private contracting arrangement three years ago. This month's strike made City Manager Paul Philips wonder whether it is time to go even further--to end city involvement with garbage altogether.
Under the arrangement that Philips envisages, companies would be free to prospect for customers among residents, setting prices at will. Residents would be free to choose the company they want.
"That is something that should be looked at," he said. "One advantage is that the city is not involved in disputes between companies and the property owners. The marketplace controls the rate."
That sort of free-for-all approach has been in place in South El Monte since the San Gabriel Valley city incorporated in 1958.
"It is better for us to have an open-door policy," said Audrey Czarny, assistant city manager. She described a setup that in practice varies little from the franchise system, despite its anarchic potential of companies fighting over garbage and a parade of trucks from several companies rumbling down the same street.
Only two of the 14 companies licensed to pick up trash in South El Monte handle single-family residences, and they pick up in different areas of the city, she said.
"They have a mutual understanding between them. There were always a few problems, but they managed to resolve it themselves," she said. "We don't seem to receive too many complaints."
Czarny said the city stays out of rate-setting.
"If they are to increase their rate, they are to give us notice ahead of time--not that we could do anything about it." The rates of the two companies handling single-family homes are "very close," she said.
'Significantly Less Costly'
In a recent study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ecodata Inc., a New York research firm, compared public and private municipal services, including garbage collection, of a number of cities in the Los Angeles area.
"The main conclusion," said Ecodata President Barbara Stevens, "is that refuse collection by private firms under contract to the city is significantly less costly and provides service of an equal quality" compared with the service provided by city employees.