Eel River Disposal and Tom’s Trash Compromise on Willow Creek Franchise
By DIOVER DUARIO, Two Rivers Tribune
After various meetings with Eel River Disposal, Tom’s Trash owner Josh McKnight is confident that a compromised contract proposal will keep his 40-year-old business in business.
“It looked pretty bad in the beginning. A week ago I thought I’d have to sell all the equipment,” McKnight said. “But I think a couple of the supervisors encouraged [Eel River Disposal’s president] Harry Hardin to make a deal, and after we talked and had a couple of sit downs, I’m pretty hopeful.”
The initial controversy began in 2011 when Tom’s Trash was placed under fire by the county and competing companies due to bookkeeping mismanagement that ultimately led to a felony conviction of a former employee.
Nonetheless, the franchise remained with the local company in a 4-1 vote by the board of supervisors to which Eel River Disposal, who proposed the lowest bid for waste disposal services, filed a restraining order claiming that the decision was in violation of the competitive bid process.
The lawsuit went to the Superior Court and was sent back to the board of supervisors where the final decision was made to give the franchise to Fortuna-based Eel River Disposal despite overwhelming public support for Tom’s Trash.
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, who supported keeping the business with Tom’s Trash, said the public interest was clear on which service the residents of Willow Creek preferred.
“We received 650 signatures and 90 letters in support of Tom’s Trash but I believe that the board was concerned that we would go back to court and lose,” Sundberg said.
The board did not receive a single letter supporting Eel River Disposal’s acquirement of the Willow Creek franchise despite the staff report stating that their service would lower the current rates being charged for waste disposal.
Jim Pulse Sr., owner of the Hoopa-based Tent Man Sales, said he would gladly pay a little more to keep the franchise with Tom’s Trash.
“Here’s the thing, the fact is that Tom’s Trash is a local business. They employ local people. We shouldn’t bring in somebody else when they’ve provided this service for many years and done a good job at it.” Pulse said. “I have nothing against Eel River Disposal but we have enough trouble finding work for people here.”
Chuck Schager, Eel River Disposal’s resource recovery manager, confirms that the new contract is now in the hands of a county lawyer and hopes to see the progress go quickly.
McKnight is relieved that the franchise will stay with Tom’s Trash and says that the community played a key role in the consideration to negotiate the contract.
“I believe that the community response was a big factor in the negotiations. I think that Eel River Disposal realized how important it was for us to keep our businesses local,” McKnight said. “Both parties want it and I believe the county wants it so I don’t see why they wouldn’t approve it.”
PREVIOUS Published May 20, 2014
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE
Humboldt County Superior Court issued a judgment on Tuesday, April 1, that puts the final decision on Willow Creek’s garbage contract back in the hands of the County’s Board of Supervisors.
The Court’s ruling comes nearly three and a half years after bookkeeping errors, negligence, and years of uncollected bills saw locally-owned Tom’s Trash lose their franchise license from the County.
Josh McKnight, the owner of Tom’s Trash, said, “It’s been a three year legal battle that was caused by an employee’s criminal negligence and we’re still fighting.”
The business is required to pay fees to the County each month to keep the franchise; one payment based on the total weight of trash dumped and another based on the company’s gross income.
Joanne McKnight, Josh McKnight’s grandmother and widow of the late Thomas McKnight who founded Tom’s Trash, found out that the company’s bookkeeper hadn’t been paying the fees to the County.
It was also discovered that the bookkeeper wasn’t billing some customers for months or years at a time.
“There were some cases where people hadn’t received a bill in two years,” Josh McKnight said, “and you can’t operate a business without money coming in.”
The County took the franchise away from Tom’s Trash at the end of December 2010 and awarded an interim six-month contract starting January 1, 2011 to Eel River Disposal based in Fortuna.
Josh McKnight, a Hoopa tribal member who also runs an engineering company, bought Tom’s Trash from his grandmother in early 2011 and struggled to win back the franchise and keep the company afloat.
“This business has been in my family for 40 years and there’s been a huge outpouring of local support to try and keep it here,” he said.
When Eel River Disposal’s interim contract ended, they submitted the lowest bid for a long-term 10-year franchise agreement and the County’s Department of Public Works recommend that they get it.
The Board of Supervisors rejected the recommendation and voted 4-1 to give the franchise back to Tom’s Trash.
Ryan Sundberg, 5th District Supervisor, led the effort to keep the franchise in local hands, after talking to Willow Creek residents.
“I’m the one who took the lead on it,” Sundberg said at the time, adding that Tom’s Trash emerged as the community’s clear choice.
That didn’t sit well with Eel River Disposal’s owner, Harry Hardin, who filed for a restraining order to stop the rewarding of the franchise and filed a lawsuit against Humboldt County.
“Either way it goes, I won the bid,” Hardin told the TRT in 2011.
Hardin’s request for a restraining order was denied in September 2011. Eel River Disposal’s lawsuit against the County for allegedly violating the procurement policies was effectively ended when the Superior Court sent the matter back to the County.
The Court gave the Board of Supervisors the option to either award the franchise to the lowest bidder, Eel River Disposal, or dispense with competitive bidding and award it to Tom’s Trash.
Josh McKnight said, “It’s hard to say what will happen. They’re a different Board of Supervisors than they were three years ago. I’m hoping they’ll make the same decision again, but we don’t know.”
With the Board scheduled to decide on Tuesday, May 20, the fate of several local jobs hangs in the balance.
Amy McKnight, Josh’s aunt and office person for Tom’s Trash, said, “We got over 600 names on a petition and we presented it to the Board of Supervisors in Eureka.”
“Now we’re looking for letters of support and we received quite a few,” Amy McKnight said. “What happens next is up to the Board of Supervisors.”