Tilting at windmills and Paso Robles garbage rates

July 31, 2020

Dick McKinley


Earlier this year, my local waste collection company let it be known that it wanted to raise its monthly service rates.

This isn’t uncommon; it’s a request that comes along every so often and I gave it little thought until — even to my layman’s eyes — details of the proposal started to smell a little funky.

I decided to shed my reporter’s hat for the first time in a 50-year career in journalism, and try some citizen activism, maybe raise some community awareness.

Three months later, I got my ass civilly kicked. Allow me to elaborate.

In my town, the waste disposal chore is handled by Paso Robles Waste & Recycle (PRW&R). It’s family owned and operated, with patriarch Dale Gomer at the helm.

The rate increase plan put forward by PRW&R was the product of their year-long effort to produce justification for the hike. In March, the city complied with requirements of Prop. 218 and sent a mailer seeking ratepayers’ comments or formal objections to the hike.

It’s essentially impossible for rate payers to stop a hike proposal; the proposition’s requirement of 50 percent plus one means that around here, a successful protest would require about 18,000 signatures.

Some friends with more math savvy than I sat in the garage of one and talked numbers. The rate hike, we surmised, was unreasonable, higher than neighboring communities. But what to do?

I put together a website and outlined the issues, published a detailed comparison of other haulers’ rates, and proposed an action plan for those who might be interested in objecting.

Along the way I noticed something that struck me as odd: the city’s multi-million-dollar-a-year garbage contract has never been put out to competitive bid. Ever.

Now, before you naysayers start yammering about the huge capital investments necessary to perform this service, let me simply say, I get it. But in my years sitting in city council and county supervisor meetings while reporting on waste disposal contract hearings, I never once heard the term “forever” in relation to a huge ongoing government contract.

I submitted a public records request for details of the pending deal, curious about PRW&R’s rate increase plan which was extrapolated over seven years, through 2027. This was odd because their current contract would have only extended through 2022.

Bear in mind that at $6 million annually, this little extension is worth a cool $30 million.

Now meet Dick McKinley, Paso Robles’ public works director, who explained to me with what seemed like diminishing patience that the extra five years on the contract were awarded to PRW&R  because the company had satisfied specific terms of their agreement with  the city.

That provision called for PRW&R to put into operation a green waste facility by the end of 2018. So I asked three questions: (1) By what mechanism was the PRW&R green waste agreement accepted by the city? (2) Which city official or panel deemed the agreement satisfied the city’s contract requirement? And (3) why no bid for the upcoming waste disposal contract?

By this time it had become clear to me that McKinley was the best public relations guy PRW&R could have had.

I asked for a copy of the agreement between PRW&R and the green waste facility “that satisfied the city’s contract requirement.”

McKinley responded: “I’m not certain that there is an agreement, and if so, it is a company document, not a City document.” No, Dick, it’s an agreement that directly involves the city and its rate payers, and that makes it a public document.

Three weeks later, as luck would have it, McKinley emailed me: “By the way, I found the PRWR – Buckeye agreement. I didn’t think I had it. Sorry for the delay.”

The three-paragraph “agreement” can be found at the end of this commentary. At least the parties, Gomer and George Kardashian of Buckeye Processing & MRF, LLC., had the grace to use different colors of ink.

I thanked McKinley for the copy, and followed up: “I notice there is no actual date specifying when this odd little document was signed; there is only reference to a specific date within the agreement itself, which does not in fact memorialize the date document was signed. Can you please tell me when this document was actually signed? I also note there is no mention of numerous elements one might normally find in such a contract, such as rates (‘market conditions’) and language specific to contamination. Comment?”

That was the end of McKinley’s and my email communications. He poked through a surprise “amendment” at a subsequent council meeting to memorialize the transactions, a move that only Council Member Maria Garcia questioned, but only briefly. And on a unanimous vote, the mysterious amendment passed.

There weren’t 18,000 protests filed to the rate hike. Retired city employees sang the praises of the garbage company at the council meeting. PRW&R will now keep working through 2027.

Oh, well. I’ve had my butt kicked before. But there’s still a lot to do around here. The city streets are a constant embarrassment, and a band of wealthy and unscrupulous raiders eye our water basin.

Maybe I’ll revive the website.

Daniel Blackburn, co-founder of CalCoastNews, now has time to complain.


PRWD Buckeye Processing Agreement by CalCoastNews on Scribd

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Sorry you got your butt kicked, but we must keep fighting. If we don’t fight and at least try to make changes – things will continue as they are. Cost of basic services will continue to increase (water, sewer, trash, etc.) and the city will continue to complain that they are out of money and residents must be taxed more.

I did like your comment —

McKinley “poked through a surprise “amendment” at a subsequent council meeting to memorialize the transactions, a move that only Council Member Maria Garcia questioned, but only briefly. And on a unanimous vote, the mysterious amendment passed.”

It should be obvious that Councilwoman Garcia is just a figurehead on the council. Likely she has been instructed to ‘go-along’ with the others on any issue that looks better when passed 5-0. Recall her recent ‘slight’ questioning about the sales tax increase, while no increase in TOT.

That is a shame, since I thought she would be better based on her ‘commitments’ when she ran in 2018. But the “good-ole boys” group of 4 are in total control.

Unless there was a way to replace at least 3 council members – things will not change. Probably a big part of the fact that nobody will challenge an incumbent; unless they have been completely vetted by the “gang of 4”

But, back to fight that still needs to be fought. Residents need to educate themselves and understand that the sales tax increase needs to be soundly defeated. Don’t just be the compliant and complacent citizens that the city so wants and enjoys.

Nice report. Most will never hear about it until it hits their pocket book.

I have a challenge for you Dan. Please look into the corrupt local teacher’s union’s and the blatant fleecing of the taxpayers by the various school districts, Cal Poly, and Cuesta College. If you did a investigated story on them, I bet you would REALLY get your but kicked. Will you take the challenge?

The garbage industry is inherently corrupt, east coast style. It is a profitable monopoly gifted by local governments, duh.

Headline is precisely how I feel about this piece. Don Quixote definitely thought those windmills pretty important and an obvious menace. Unfortunately, nobody else did. Solid writing though.

Is this more backdoor dealing, fraud and embezzlement I smell? Or is that just me?

As a citizen of Paso, I thank you, and I’m sorry for the city of Paso and slo county have contractors for companies working to lobby local politicians to gentrify the heck out of our home in such a short period of time. Paso is gung ho on development. 2 housing projects and now a super exclusive mega resort catering to the ultra rich. Sad.