Does Cicero Garbage Deal Stink For Taxpayers?

Garbage company is paid millions by Cicero taxpayers in no-bid deal, and donates big to Town President Larry Dominick’s campaign funds.

The Town of Cicero paid a waste-processing company more than $15 million over the last decade to dispose of residential garbage from the western suburb.

Does something about this arrangement stink?

We ask for two reasons:

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  • First, we discovered the garbage company, Heartland Recycling LLC, has no written contract with Cicero’s municipal government – and the firm apparently has, at least in recent times, kept the Cicero work without competitive bidding.
  • Second, Heartland and now-former executive Thomas A. Volini donated nearly $130,000 to campaign funds controlled by or otherwise benefitting Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, who has a big say in whether Heartland keeps working for Cicero.

That’s a heck of a lot of money flowing to Dominick’s campaigns from Heartland’s camp, and from Cicero taxpayers to the company.

Before we get to the town’s explanation of things, let’s explain what Heartland does in Cicero.

The municipal government operates 10 trucks that pick up trash and recycling from approximately 23,000 residential housing units a week.

The town hauls the waste to a Heartland transfer station along the Stevenson Expressway in Forest View to be weighed and sorted. What can’t be recycled is routed to a landfill.

Cicero pays Heartland $41.54 per ton of waste to dispose of the trash and recyclables, according to records and interviews.

The town has paid Heartland $15.3 million since 2005, the year Dominick was first elected town president, according to municipal records.

Through town spokesman Ray Hanania, Dominick declined to be interviewed.

But Hanania said Dominick didn’t initially hire Heartland – the company has worked for Cicero in this capacity since before Dominick took office.

That’s true, according to records we reviewed, which show Heartland getting paid by Cicero since at least 2001.

But why did Dominick decide to keep Heartland around?

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Heartland Recycling / BGA photo

"We have been very happy with their service," Hanania says via email. "It’s an old arrangement but everyone feels their price is competitive."

But how do officials know it’s a competitive price if there’s no competitive bidding?

Cicero officials have checked around on pricing and know Heartland’s prices are good, Hanania says, adding the public works department negotiates those rates.

We reached out to two industry experts in the Chicago region, and they agreed that the existing pricing is on the spectrum of what’s acceptable.

But that’s almost aside from the point.

Without competitive bidding, how do taxpayers know whether the costs could be lower? Without competitive bidding, do other companies have a fair shot at getting hired by taxpayers? Without competitive bidding, how do we know Dominick isn’t lagging work to a campaign donor? (Hanania said that’s absolutely not the case.)

While it may not be a best practice, Cicero is apparently within its right to forgo the competitive bidding process – it’s not broken any state or local law, according to municipal attorneys we spoke to.

Meanwhile, the BGA asked Cicero for a copy of a contract or other agreement with Heartland, but that Illinois Freedom of Information Act request was denied because the town said no such document existed.

"The Town of Cicero feels that not having a contract is advantageous to the Town," Hanania says in an email. "It gives us the freedom to cancel the service at any time."

But it also leaves the town potentially unprotected. A contract not only safeguards a municipality and vendor by defining the costs and responsibilities of both upfront, it makes it easier for taxpayers to scrutinize an arrangement.

No Trash Talk From Family

As for Heartland’s campaign donations, Hanania says via email that they "are all done openly and publicly but are not related to Town Government."

All but one donation to Dominick’s political funds occurred while Volini – once a business partner of Fred Barbara, a friend of ex-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley – and his family controlled Heartland. The Volinis sold the company in June to Morton Grove-based Lakeshore Recycling Systems LLC, says Lakeshore CEO Alan Handley. Heartland is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Lakeshore.

Heartland contributed $10,000 to Cicero Voters Alliance last month, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

A Lakeshore spokesman says that prior to the sale the Volini family had pledged to contribute and Lakeshore decided to honor that commitment.

"The funds were for an ad in a program guide plus the sponsorship of an annual golf outing the mayor has been holding for a number of years," the spokesman says in an email.

Volini could not be reached for comment. His family members who were involved in Heartland either couldn’t be reached or declined comment.

This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.