Donations from garbage collection company Republic Services to cities and counties across the Treasure Valley are troubling on a number of levels.
As reported in the Idaho Press, Republic Services has been regularly making payments to Treasure Valley government entities it has contracts with, totaling at least $700,000 over the past three years.
Republic Services said the money comes from federal tax credits the company receives because it uses natural gas engines.
We are concerned about whether such “donations” create an undue influence on the public officials who are in charge of awarding contracts to private companies.
But perhaps what concerns us most is the lack of oversight of these funds.
In most of the cases reviewed by the Idaho Press, city councils did not vote on the receipt or the spending of the money given to the city by Republic Services. Further, several city officials said their city did not formally account for the money by recording the donations in their annual budgets.
How do we know how much was donated to each city? What other companies are “donating” to the city and how much? Without an accounting, without a vote by city council and without a recording of the money in budget books, it’s virtually impossible to know. Worse, it’s easy to hide.
We’re also concerned that city councils apparently haven’t been involved. A Republic Services representative said the money was dropped off in check form at city hall, and that in many of the cases we reviewed, the mayors made the decisions about how to spend the money.
We found that the money from the donations has been spent on such things as a grocery shuttle in north Nampa, playground equipment, an exhibit at Zoo Boise and the purchase of electric vehicles for the city of Boise fleet.
These expenditures, to us, sound like pet projects for mayors to generate goodwill in the community — which they certainly do. But that’s not how a city budget is supposed to work.
City council members are responsible for the city budget. They’re the ones hired to make decisions about how to spend taxpayer dollars. If city council members want to fund a grocery shuttle, buy playground equipment, electric vehicles and an exhibit at the zoo, that’s all well and good. They just need to bring it up as a line item on the budget, discuss it in an open forum, debate it, disagree, persuade fellow council members, then vote on it and own their decision. That’s how a city budget is supposed to work.
The only city that seemed to have done it right was Meridian. City attorney Bill Nary told the Idaho Press that Mayor Tammy de Weerd made a recommendation to the Meridian City Council on how to use the funds, which the council then approved. Nary said in 2018, when the city received over $18,000 from Republic Services, the council voted to use it to build a fishing dock at Kleiner Park. We don’t quite agree with how the money was spent, but we’ll get to that later.
Boise seemed to get it partially right. Boise spokesman Mike Journee told the Idaho Press that Mayor Dave Bieter and his office staff came up with the recommendations for how to use the money, which was then presented to Boise City Council, and was never formally voted on. The money was put into the city budget, in different sections based on what it would be used for, and the budget was later formally approved by the council.
Kudos to the Nampa City Council for going back on May 6 and doing it the right way to decide on how to spend the remaining $29,000 that was “donated” by Republic Services. As you can see from the discussion among council members, there were a lot of different opinions on how to spend the money and a healthy and vigorous discussion.
We’re glad that they decided on using the money for relief for seniors who are struggling to pay city utility bills.
Which brings us to our last big concern here. If we have local residents who are struggling to pay their utility bills, and the garbage company can afford to hand out $700,000 in donations, wouldn’t it make more sense to have lower garbage collection bills? Or, in other words, if the garbage company can give back $50,000 to the city of Nampa, shouldn’t garbage rates be lower by $50,000?
City officials should do the right thing here.
First, if they receive a “donation” from any private company with which the city does business, the city should return that money to the taxpayers or ratepayers — particularly ratepayers who are paying into an enterprise fund, which, by the way, is supposed to charge only the cost of what it costs to operate the system.
Second, if a city receives a donation, the city needs to go through the proper procedure. Bring it before the council, put it on the record that the money was received and have the city council decide where the money should go.
This should all be done in the public and out in the open, not in the mayor’s office behind closed doors.