Municipal Street Sweeping: Which is Better, In-house or Contracted Out?
When and why is contracting good for municipalities?Meet our Panelists:
WORLD SWEEPER: There's a widespread belief that municipalities generally resist the idea of contracting out. When and why is it a good idea?
Billings: Most of the time, any resistance is from a Public Works Director who fights it because it will cost city employees their jobs. It has nothing to do with what would be good for the city in terms of cost. That's why in some instances it's important to get past the public works department to get the city streets out for bid. Sometimes it's better to go to the mayor or the city council.
Hansen: Another fear city officials may have is losing control of the sweeping situation: how it's done, inspected, the routing, etc. Actually there may be more control with contracting, because the contractor doesn't want to lose the job.
Billings: I think quality control is much better with a private contractor. The city is getting a double check on quality with both their own inspectors and those of the contractor.
Swatkowski: With regard to the operators: When a city does its own sweeping, it's harder for management to improve quality if they are displeased. They can't just fire someone. I can replace a driver more easily if I need to. And a contractor is also more accountable because, with a contractor, you can be more certain that the callbacks and spot checks are attended to.
WORLD SWEEPER: An advantage to contracting sweeping services would seem to be that the city would, in a sense, have only one employee to deal with instead of many.
Hansen: For whatever reason, many directors think it costs less to run sweeping themselves. My experience is that in most of those instances they're not opening their eyes to the true costs. Sometimes it can be a prestige thing; they want their own sweepers. Or they may think they'll get a better response time in emergencies if they have their own machines, which is seldom true.
WORLD SWEEPER: What are a city's potential advantages in contracting out its sweeping needs?
Galdiero: One of the major reasons always cited is cost; it's cheaper for most cities for a variety of reasons. I think that one significant factor is the city's not ever paying for a sweeper that's down.
Hansen: In our part of the country, cities will often buy a sweeper, only to put barely a few hundred hours a year onto it. Private contractors generally use their sweepers much more, because they perform the complete range of sweeping with the same equipment: city streets, construction cleanup, spring cleanups in parking lots, milling and sealcoat sweeping, etc. The basic cost of the investment in contractor machines is amortized over more hours. This brings the total operating cost of the sweeper down.
For the same reason, contractors also have operators who are specialists in sweeping. They don't sweep for a few weeks, then run a dump truck, and then rotate to another job where they're needed. These are just some of the reasons why contractors are, by and large, more efficient.
Swatkowski: Our operators who do streets and lots are better with sweeping patterns; they can be more efficient than the operator of a city sweeper who has less experience.
Hansen: Another drawback for a small city with a one-person department may be in lack of equipment, or the right equipment. They may have purchased an air sweeper and then run into a situation where a broom would really be better. If you can only afford one machine or the other, there is just no way to be competitive with a large contractor. A contractor, of course, will have and use what's needed in each situation.
Billings: And in some cases may be able to have both running on the same job, which can be very effective.
For small municipalities that can't afford two sweepers, contractors provide better stormwater runoff cleanup.
WORLD SWEEPER: We reported on a recent study by Kurahashi & Associates (The Changing Emphasis of Municipal Sweeping, Volume 4, #1, 1994) which shows conclusively that tandem sweeping - a broom sweeper followed by an air machine - provides the best stormwater runoff control, as well as the best cost/benefit in terms of the amount of material picked up per sweeping hour.
Hansen: Especially for small municipalities which can't afford two machines, contractors provide better stormwater runoff cleanup. Professional city managers now know how important it is to have careful cleanup of those fines. These days, with the stormwater pollution, it's perhaps even more important to get those up than it is the bulk material.
Galdiero: Yes, the fines are as important as the large debris that gets picked up.
Billings: And most cities owning their own sweeper fleets have brooms only, so they're not getting up all those fines.
WORLD SWEEPER: Industry contractors, more than city managers, are still more aware of the fact that air sweepers do a better job with the fines. They're more up on the literature. Many cities have historically only used broom machines and, because of an uneducated public, there is usually only political pressure to get up visible litter. The reality is that, today, sweeping in all venues must be done for stormwater and EPA reasons as well. The calls we get indicate that the sweeping contractor is likely to have more information about current EPA requirements and industry standards. City managers usually are not as aware of the latest industry stormwater information.
Billings: Yes, when I went in to the city of San Diego to argue my case [for contracting], they didn't want to even hear about it. They still think running only a broom sweeper is okay. Education is very important, especially on the environmental issues. I've lost work to broom machines because the people doing the evaluation just wouldn't believe me. I could have done the job with brooms, too, but I believe in using air if it's what is best for the job. I'd rather educate them about what modern air machines, like Schwarze's A-series and S-series, can do.
Hansen: Water quality is becoming a concern everywhere. EPA guidelines and water quality are certainly big issues for us in Minnesota, due to the large number of lakes. For example, our company has been screening litter for years, because we wanted to be environmentally proactive. It was not until this year, however, that our state issued a grant to a county enabling them to purchase a screener to be used by different municipal entities to screen their sweepings.
Swatkowski: The public works director of a large city near us claimed the EPA is telling them that they must have air machines. Is that true in other places?
Billings: Not nearly as much as I think it should be. I think we as an industry need to get that in writing and use it as ammunition to some of these other cities who haven't done their homework.
San Diego is very conscious of these regulations because all of the runoff goes to the bay. We need the manufacturers to help us, though. For example, I know Schwarze now has an option that, in essence, makes their sweeper be both. It puts a broom in advance of the air head. I think those sort of adaptations are going to be the future.
WORLD SWEEPER: When you go to the mayor or city council, what do you tell them to prove conclusively that contracting is going to be better?
Billings: They are mostly interested in bottom line costs and clean streets. You have to prove to them that a private contractor will have the right equipment available and be more conscientious. My experience is that if you can get one person convinced, then they'll go to bat for you with the others.
Hansen: The contractor is much more likely to have the variety of sweeping equipment needed. A typical city can't afford to have all the individual pieces. Also a problem for cities is they are usually required to take the low bid when they buy a sweeper. Contractors are not bound by this. I believe that contractors also demo new sweepers more often, and are thus familiar with the newest technologies. We're able to know what the best machine is, and can buy it. A city usually ends up with whatever comes in at low bid. They may even try to purchase one brand of sweeper and end up with another. A contractor is able to provide the most efficient equipment for each type of sweeping.
Galdiero: From what I've seen, contractors tend to have dedicated equipment for a dedicated job. You've got to have a machine that is made to do the particular job. A lot of times when a city buys a machine they'll be paying for it long after it has become outdated. They can't keep up with changes in the industry the way a contractor can and does.
The cities also tend to not see the hidden costs, like maintenance, storage, performance bonds. You have to educate them to these real costs. Show them that it is probably more cost-effective to contract out the job. Contractors are usually more responsive to emergency situations, too.
Hansen: If that's a concern, cities can work that into their contract. A big enough contractor should be able to guarantee a reasonable response time.
WORLD SWEEPER: How do you recommend that a contract be worked out? Have the city develop it, do it in conjunction with area contractors, or what?
Hansen: Our company belongs to a national association called the Contract Sweeping Institute (CSI), which is now part of the APWA. They can be used as a resource to find a reputable company. CSI is also putting together a library of sample contracts that will be available to all of the CSI and APWA members.
Billings: I've found that by the time it gets to the bid process, the contract is usually pretty well outlined. You just have to prove that you can perform. It would be wonderful, though, to be involved in creating the contract. There are a lot of ways that we could advise them; we are the professionals.
Managers fear losing leverage, but rate competition among contractors prevents that.
WORLD SWEEPER: Some of the city managers we hear from express concern that once the bid has been secured, they lose leverage. Their feeling is that when their sweeping equipment is either sold or outdated, the contractors can raise their prices and the city will be stuck.
Billings: That really doesn't happen. Competition takes care of that, just as it does everywhere else.
Hansen: That's right, we have to stay competitive. If we raise our rates, someone else will come in and take over the contract. If anything, on this topic there's an advantage for the city.
Billings: Every city contract that I've bid has the bid price, and then an option year one, option year two, etc. The city will usually average those and that's how they award the low bid. So you're in there however many option years you specify.
Galdiero: That introduces a whole new topic, however: We need to educate the public works officials in how to evaluate their bidders. There may be a bid that comes in lowest, but from a company that's not qualified or capable.
Billings: Again though, in every bid I've ever filled out, I have to include my references and equipment. In California they really do go through your company to make sure that you are qualified.
Swatkowski: And, you often have to post your performance bond. If you don't perform, they go to your bonding company, which is about the worst thing that can happen to a sweeping company.
Billings: Oddly, cities in the San Diego area have put street sweeping under a landscaping contractor. In all four cities I sweep, I am a subcontractor to another subcontractor. It would make much more sense to be in a contract directly with the city, and paid directly by the city. That would make it much easier to bring to the city the knowledge and professionalism they deserve.
Hansen: I'd think the city would rather deal directly with you, to take out a level of bureaucracy. They need to realize that they pay a percentage at every level.
Billings: Their position is they want to have one person responsible, so it's easier for them. I've argued the cost issue, but they don't want to listen. That's an advantage of developing as a professional organization and industry, however, to become better able to get that message across. Sweeping is one of the more important environmental challenges facing cities, and they are slowly coming to realize it. The sooner it happens, the much better for all concerned.
The late John 'Mac' MacMullen was a former public works director and the national secretary of Contract Sweepers Institute, a precursor to the North American Power Sweeping Association. He also sat in during our Municipal Forum and had these comments:
First, there should never be an 'us' versus 'them' in the relationship between a sweeping contractor and a public works department. All should have the same goal - to do the best job of sweeping possible. Everyone should aim toward developing a win/win situation.
I don't know of a department that can't gainfully employ former sweeper operators in another way, so positions are not really being eliminated. Let managers know they can use their human resources to better advantage somewhere else. Most departments have more work than they have people to do it. Some of the time, city operators may even be able to go to work for the contracting company now doing the sweeping for the city. City public works people need to be willing to figure up all the costs and make a rational decision. Often that means going out to private bid.
My sources have convinced me that [when having sweeping contracted] you still have as much control, or more, than when using your own people. Control should be written into the contract.
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, v5n1.
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