The Numbers Stink (And Other Trash Puns)

February 9, 2011

Is there a reason we can’t get some concrete numbers on the cost of hauling away our garbage and recycling? We must have to budget for it every year, right? So where are the cold hard figures?

Because without them, pricing possible savings from privatizing waste collection is pretty much a crap shoot. I mean, look at the numbers being bandied about. The C.D. Howe Institute suggested last fall that Toronto could save a cool $49 mil/year if it contracted out all its garbage duties. On the campaign trail, Rob Ford said it’d be $20 million. His announcement Monday vowed to reduce our costs by $8 million with privatizing everywhere west of Yonge Street. Yesterday his Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, thought city-wide we could save in the neighbourhood of $16-18 million. Of course, the union involved assured us privatizing garbage collection would cost us money. But we know they’re hardly honest brokers in all this.

It’s enough to make your head spin and get you all discombobulated. Both the Toronto Star’s Royson James and Sue-Ann Levy over at the Sun found the numbers game being played kind of confusing although, to be honest, we have it on good authority that Ms. Levy can become disoriented if given a tangled ball of yarn. While there’s a wave of reaction in favour of outsourcing garbage and recycling collection – our mayor has said government has no business in the refuse business – it’s a sentiment that is based almost exclusively on blind, ideological faith in the notion that the private sector will always be more efficient and less costly than the public sector. I’d really like to see some numbers to back that claim up.

As the former mayor of Etobicoke back in the 90s, Doug Holyday privatized garbage collection there and now claims it saves $2 million annually. That’s great if true, Mr. Hoylday, but could I see it in writing? Not that I don’t believe you or anything but as the architect of garbage privatization, you’ve got some vested interest in trumpeting that number as a fact. In her column on Monday, Ms. Levy dismisses out of hand union assertions on costs as ‘nonsense’ while embracing whole-heartedly the information she gets from a group calling itself the Ontario Waste Management Association. The OWMA, you say? Who’s that? 300 private sector companies, some of whom, arguably, will stand to gain from the outsourcing of Toronto’s garbage and recycling collection.

The numbers they bandy about are in almost direct opposition to those provided by the folks over at the Progressive Economics Forum who seem to have examined the pro-privatization arguments put forth by the C.D. Howe and Toronto Board of Trade and found both wanting. In his post yesterday, Toby Sanger shows the city of Ottawa saving money with their unionized city employees collecting garbage in the downtown core. After studying the issue, Peterborough decided against outsourcing its garbage collection.

Now, I’m no economist (although I do have an uncle who played one on TV’s Beachcombers years ago), so I can’t say for certain who’s right and who’s wrong on this issue. The numbers just aren’t there. Every professed cost saving on one side can be countered by an argument of increases from the other. And yes, the dividing line is almost exclusively drawn through the swamp of ideology.

What is clear however is that the issue of outsourcing public sector services is a complex matter. The black and white manner in which garbage privatization here in Toronto is being promoted is not based on anything resembling a solid argument. Asserting that bringing in the private sector will save us money and increase efficiency and throwing out any old number that suits you’re fancy is meaningless and, ultimately, harmful if you turn out to be incorrect. Before rushing in and taking this very significant step based solely on biased opinion and tainted, dubious research, how be you start showing us the money.

number crunchingly submitted by Cityslikr