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Controller's report trashes city's BigBelly compactors

Philadelphia's BigBelly solar trash compactors - public receptacles located curbside throughout much of Center City and beyond - are more of a big bust than anything else, the city controller said Monday.

Philadelphia's BigBelly solar trash compactors - public receptacles located curbside throughout much of Center City and beyond - are more of a big bust than anything else, the city controller said Monday.

In a 21-page report detailing numerous problems, Controller Alan Butkovitz said the city paid too much - $3,700 apiece - in a no-bid contract.

First installed in spring 2009, the BigBellies - nearly 800 are in use - also are not working as intended, the report concluded.

"There is a complete lack of accountability for these expensive trash cans," the controller said.

Mayor Nutter and Streets Commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson said the units work well and save money.

"BigBellies have been great for us in the city, and we're looking forward to getting more," Nutter said.

The devices are intended to save on staff time and fuel costs, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Because the equipment periodically compacts the trash, it was projected that the bins would have to be emptied only five times a week instead of 17 with traditional wire baskets.

They also were seen as an alternative to open containers that attracted rodents, filled with rainwater, and often had their contents blown out by gusty winds.

The initial 500 "ecostations" were purchased with $2.2 million in state funds given to municipalities based on recycling rates.

Butkovitz said the $3,700 units - compared with $100 for wire baskets - could have been obtained for $300 less apiece, a savings of more than $200,000 overall, if the city had gone through local distributor Tri-State Building Systems Integrators in West Conshohocken instead of dealing directly with the manufacturer.

Butkovitz said BigBelly Solar of Needham, Mass., provided false information to the city by stating it was the "sole source" of the units, meaning the city would not have to put the purchase out for bid.

Tri-State has filed suit in federal court, alleging that BigBelly Solar "engaged in activities that prevented the distributor from presenting its opportunity to the city," said company attorney George Awad.

Richard Kennelly, vice president of marketing for BigBelly, said he could not comment specifically on the litigation. But he said that as the company grew and brought on distributors, it retained larger customers as direct accounts.

"We take strong objection to any claims that BigBelly Solar made any misrepresentations" to the city, he said.

BigBelly's chief operating officer, Barry Fougere, said, "The City of Philadelphia received the lowest price that any customer has received worldwide, to our knowledge."

Both said the report was riddled with inaccuracies.

The purchase was originally approved by Butkovitz - based, he said, on what he now considers "a misrepresentation about sole source."

He also said that the equipment had experienced "constant breakdowns" that workers were not trained to fix and that the city failed to consider the number of personnel it took "to maintain these highly complex units."

His staff monitored the compactors during March and April, he said, and found that Streets Department workers emptied them an average of 10 times a week, not the projected five.

"They can't tell" whether it's full or not, Butkovitz said, adding: "You're talking about replacing a low-tech item that took three minutes to empty with a gadget that requires two workers to use a key to open it up."

Both Tolson and BigBelly's Fougere said that their software has tracked every time a unit was emptied and that the records showed that happened about five times a week, as promised.

In fact, Tolson said, the department has been able to redeploy 24 of the 33 workers originally required for basket collections.

"There is no question in my mind that the BigBelly compactor program has saved taxpayer money, increased recycling, and made for cleaner communities," Tolson wrote in an initial response to Butkovitz.

She said her staff would review the report carefully.

Butkovitz said that he had heard complaints aplenty about the BigBelly units, but that the most frequent had nothing to do with whether they worked as promised.

"People think it is filthy and unsanitary to have to grab hold of those handles," he said, "where before you just tossed your trash in a basket."