It's been obvious for some time that the apparently perpetual debate over the cost of garbage service in Columbus would not end with pick-up schedules.
It's even more obvious now.
Public Works Director Pat Biegler and several garbage truck drivers, supervisors and technicians gave a grim account at Tuesday night's Columbus Council meeting. Their urgent message: The city's fleet is periously obsolete not just in terms of service but also, far more important, in terms of driver and public safety.
"The trucks are dangerous," Biegler told council. "If things start going wrong with metal fatigue and other problems, you've got a 56,000-pound vehicle out there."
The danger is more than just hypothetical. One driver recounted the experience of having a 350-pound tire -- "lug nuts, rim, everything attached" -- break off his truck on the J.R. Allen Parkway: "It didn't hit anything, but at that rate of speed, it could have easily killed anybody it hit."
The problem doesn't involve just a few of the trucks, but almost all of them. Nearly 80 percent of the vehicles are well beyond their recommended "retirement" age of seven years, some more than twice that. Fifty two of the city's 66 trucks, Biegler said, have reached "critical mass." More than 30 are not expected to last another two years, some not even a year. Lead technician Tony Perry told council that in his 29 years with Public Works, "I have never seen our fleet in such dire condition."
It will be an expensive condition to remedy. Garbage trucks cost about $250,000 each, so the cost of virtually restocking the department's entire vehicle supply would be prohibitive -- politically as well as fiscally -- for a city that obviously does not have a lot of spare cash to throw around right now.
Biegler's estimate of the garbage fee hike it would take to replace the obsolete trucks surely made councilors quietly quail --- a 40 percent increase, from the current $15 a month to $21.
But she also suggested a more palatable, if less satisfactory, alternative -- a $2 increase that would let Public Works begin replacing the worst trucks. The resulting savings in fuel and maintenance, she said, would help pay for replacement of other trucks as funds become available.
Councilor Skip Henderson publicly apologized to the drivers "for allowing you to get into those trucks." That's welcome candor from an elected official. But Henderson hardly bears full responsibility for an inexcusable situation that has obviously taken years to develop, and at this point it's not really clear just who owes an apology to whom.
What is clear is that while we were arguing for years over once- or twice-a-week service, one of the most important (and expensive) reasons that argument really mattered was getting far too little attention.