Let’s be real: If you were able to cut costs on things like trash and road cleaning by just 5 percent, how much would that save you? That, say councillors, is the question on everyone’s lips after a new report revealed Toronto’s private trash hauling industry took in $1.5 billion in fees over the past decade, but never said how it spent the money. This became apparent when the city took an audit from the Community and Protective Services Department and compared it to the collection data from city-operated trash bins.
The audit, released this week, found that the waste-hauling companies had been underreporting their business. “Based on the audits conducted for the period between 2012 and 2017, it has been estimated that public ratepayers have not received enough information to understand how many bin sets are emptied and how much trash is picked up to keep the city safe and clean,” the report states.
“[W]e are particularly concerned that for at least some of these years (2012 to 2017), the private haulers had agreed to provide only one metric service — a 75-to-90 cubic-meter estimate — which caused incomplete and inaccurate reporting on collection volumes and hence unreliable reporting on costs,” the report said.
While some private waste haulers contacted by the audit were direct in saying they had been told to err on the side of caution when it came to business estimates, others argued they were just being cautious.
“Don’t you want to be conservative? You don’t want to charge me more than I can afford to pay?” one man said of the risk of overcharging customers. “I’m a bit nervous about getting a long-term contract with one of the city of Toronto’s garbage companies.”
Also unconvinced that the private trash haulers were reporting in the full scope of services were some who said that in the past, the city had been forcing them to put up “booth-side stalls” for the public to use, to make sure it wasn’t getting pushed off the curb to collect its refuse.
In an attempt to quell such criticism, council asked the auditors to take another look at collecting data from only the private trash haulers and back up the audits with proof.
Why are private companies still able to charge so much more? “Through cost recovery we are able to finance the costs and we do spend money to keep the streets clean,” councillor Jim Karygiannis said. “I applaud the city for the effort to help us understand the issues.”
But the audit was not enough to assuage all the council’s concerns, especially in the wake of a year of industry controversy.
In June, the city launched an internal investigation into whether commercial waste haulers are “misrepresenting the value of their services” in a similar fashion as the audit, but at the time only one garbage company, Veolia, was named in the probe. A few months later, the national news magazine Maclean’s ran a story that detailed how “some bag-screened Toronto dumpsters are literally full of human feces.” It also reported that Veolia claimed it was losing contracts because “the private sector is losing money.”
When the Canadian Press and the Toronto Star picked up the story, the city said it had already launched its investigation. Shortly afterward, the city issued a statement saying it would ensure the investigation does not have any “reduced impact on Veolia’s ability to serve customers and markets,” according to the CBC.
In this week’s report, the auditor says a review of Veolia was already being completed, but was done with an eye toward its inspection at the public garbage entrance. “[T]he lack of information we have now is a delay in what we had already established as the course of action,” the report says. “There were no new information discovered at this time.”
Just as in the Maclean’s report, perhaps our frustrated councillors shouldn’t be so concerned that the private waste haulers are only reporting the amount they are actually getting paid for. What if the private haulers are under-reporting the work they are actually getting paid for?