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Upstart hauler seeks – again – to crack Missoula garbage monopoly

Hearing starts Monday before state PSC
Republic Garbage.jpg
Posted at 9:15 AM, Oct 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 10:50:48-04

MISSOULA — If you want your garbage picked up in Missoula, there’s only one company to call – Republic Services, one of the largest trash-haulers in America, which has a countywide monopoly.

But a small firm based in Belgrade — L&L Site Services — is trying for a second time to crack the Missoula market, by arguing it can provide lower prices and better service.

“There’s a definite need over there, and Republic definitely wants to keep their monopoly,” says Lance Johnson, owner of L&L Site Services. “What we see across the state, for a 95-gallon garbage can, they are the highest (rate) across the state.”

Starting Monday morning in a room on the University of Montana campus, the state Public Service Commission will hold a multi-day hearing on L&L’s request to get a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” for Missoula.

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Lance Johnson, owner of trash-hauler L&L Site Services of Belgrade.

The PSC doesn’t regulate garbage rates in Montana, but it does decide whether a hauler can serve an area, by issuing the certificate.

L&L and Republic officials will testify at this week’s hearing, present witnesses, and be cross-examined. Members of the public also get to testify, and both sides are expected to line up customers to argue on their behalf.

Chad Bauer, Republic’s municipal manager for Montana, says the company provides good service to Missoula and that a competitor isn’t needed. He notes that L&L tried to get a certificate to serve Missoula three years ago and ultimately was denied by the PSC.

“It’s our opinion that there haven’t been any changes since then,” he told MTN News on Friday. “We take great pride in meeting all of the county’s needs, and we want to continue to support that.”

L&L initially won a certificate to serve Missoula in late 2018. But through a series of legal twists and turns, the PSC reversed that decision 10 months later – and now, L&L has reapplied.

Johnson says the reaction after getting denied the first time convinced him that Missoula needs a competing garbage service.

After the PSC initially approved his permit in October 2018, customers began calling, asking about service – and that didn’t stop after the PSC reversed itself, in August 2019, he says.

“It wasn’t really publicized, so people still thought we had the permit,” Johnson says. “We still had a lot of people from Missoula County calling us, signing up for service – and that’s when you find out more truth of what’s going on, finding out there’s a huge need for it.”

The current case before the PSC isn’t the first time L&L has tangled with Republic.

L&L began hauling construction trash in 2006 in Gallatin County and then decided to apply for a certificate to compete against both Republic and the city of Bozeman in Gallatin County, for regular garbage pickup.

It won that permit and started competing with Republic in suburban and rural areas outside Bozeman, where Republic had been the only trash hauler.

“We came in at a fair price, very competitive, and put it on the street, and ever since then Republic’s prices have been coming down to get closer to ours,” Johnson says.

Johnson says L&L charges residential customers in Gallatin County anywhere from $78 to $86 per quarter, or $312 to $344 a year, and offers discounts to certain customers.

Republic charges customers in Missoula $360 a year, Bauer says.

Republic also owns the only landfill in Missoula County, that takes trash not only from Missoula but from towns all across western and southwestern Montana.

But Johnson says Republic has made it clear that if he wins the certificate, it won’t let him bring Missoula trash to its landfill. Johnson says he’s already arranged to take the trash to a landfill near Helena.

“Republic has a good monopoly going, and this vindictive, selfish attitude towards Missoula County and the citizens is a good example of why Missoula needs another choice,” he says.

Bauer says no decision has been made on whether L&L could use Republic’s landfill, "we evaluate all applications to use the landfill."