Privatizing Toronto's Garbage, '90s Edition
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Privatizing Toronto’s Garbage, ’90s Edition

Garbage collection, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1359.

With media concerns about government waste and with the rise of the “Common Sense Revolution” in Ontario, in the mid-1990s it seemed that any government service could be sold off. Just like Mayor Rob Ford and his allies at City Hall, the definitive notion promoted in various privatization schemes was that taxpayers would get more bang for their tax dollars if they didn’t have to foot the bill for services ranging from ambulances to public transit. Garbage collection has been one of the easiest services for Toronto governments to ease into sell-offs, as suburban administrators found in the ’90s and as our current representatives aim to do.

Within Metropolitan Toronto, the privatization of garbage began with a pilot program launched in East York in May 1994. The borough reached an agreement with Laidlaw Waste Services to handle trash collection between the Don River and Greenwood Avenue, and in Leaside and Thorncliffe Park. Municipal officials estimated that East York would save $3 million over the length of the contract, while number-crunchers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) estimated the savings would be a fifth of the touted figure. A petition to reconsider the project was delivered to East York council in September 1994 but was largely ignored—only councillors who initially voted for privatization could reopen the issue. None were so inclined.
Below a story about the East York petition that appeared in the September 20, 1994 edition of the Star, another item reported that Etobicoke was contemplating contracting out all of its garbage services. Works Commissioner Paul Mitcham presented a plan to Etobicoke council that proposed savings of $2.6 million a year. Besides private bids, the council also asked the local garbage collectors union to submit a bid.
No action was taken until after that November’s municipal election, which placed Doug Holyday in the Etobicoke mayor’s chair. Let’s just say that Holyday, current deputy mayor of Toronto and councillor for Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre, has been consistent in his position on garbage privatization over the past two decades, valuing cost savings above all. During Etobicoke Council’s vote on the issue on February 27, 1995, he reminded colleagues that “the pressure was on them” to vote for contracting out to maintain election promises to keep taxes down. He also noted that the preferred bidder’s offer to buy the city’s fleet of garbage trucks for $1.7 million was “far too much to turn our backs on.” When council voted eight to five in favour of awarding a contract to the lowest bidder, Holyday told the press,“It’s about time. I believe it is a better way.” When he suggested that the other municipalities within Metropolitan Toronto could follow Etobicoke’s lead, discussions were already underway in North York (which went nowhere) and York (where, despite opposition from Mayor Frances Nunziata, contracting out was approved the following year and lasted a decade).
A week later, the Star published a pro-privatization editorial that criticized the City of Toronto for not following its suburban neighbours. Operating under the premise that the move to privatization was being made for budgetary, not ideological, reasons, the Star pointed out that if 10 per cent of the city’s $32-million budget was saved, proposed cuts to the city budget such as closing libraries on Mondays, deferring the purchase of new fire trucks, and reducing the number of trash cans in parks and on streets by half could be avoided. The editorial writer felt the City’s resistance was due to extensive lobbying by civic employee unions. “It’s time,” the editorial concluded, “Toronto City councillors asked themselves whom they are serving: the public or civic employees? If the former, privatization of garbage collection is a measure they ought to be giving priority consideration.” Flashing forward 16 years, the Star still favours contracting out, as long as the private sector can provide quality service and all the right bureaucratic procedures are followed.
Additional material from the September 20, 1994, February 28, 1995, and March 5, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.