November 3, 2014
By Brian Costin

This article was written by Gregory Pratt and featured in the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 2014. 

In 2011, Tinley Park concluded its residents were paying more for garbage collection than people in neighboring towns.

But instead of trying to find a less expensive alternative, the village rehired the same garbage collection company, a firm tied to a political insider, without any competitive bidding. That contract extension in 2011, worth an estimated $24 million, won’t expire until 2019.

A Tribune review of records found that the garbage company, Tinley Park Disposal, has continued to receive no-bid contract extensions for nearly two decades. The company was founded by Al Siegers, who has been a volunteer village commissioner since 1993, just a few months before his business inked its first deal with Tinley Park. Siegers also is a campaign contributor and friend to longtime Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki.

Tinley Park Disposal is a subsidiary of Homewood Disposal. Siegers said he sold his ownership stake in 2007, but he remains a manager at the company.

The garbage contract is another case of a politically connected company getting a contract in the south suburb. The Tribune reported previously on how Tinley Park over several years paid $1 million in no-bid cash to a printing company owned by the mayor’s campaign manager; spent $176,000 at a flower shop owned by the mayor’s secretary’s family; and spent $86,000 for holiday decorations from the village marketing director’s sister-in-law.

A few extra dollars per month for garbage service might not appear to make a dramatic difference for residents, but it adds up to millions of dollars by the end of the contract. In a town where leaders tout their fiscal responsibility, the failure to bid means Tinley Park didn’t do everything it could to ensure residents got the best possible price, experts said.

“To see patterns of people who could be called insiders, their companies getting what appears to be special deals, is a big cause for concern,” said Brian Costin, director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute.

In the case of Tinley Park Disposal, Zabrocki said the suburb simply hired a company that does good work without any consideration given to the business’ connections.

Assistant village manager Steve Tilton said officials weighed multiple factors — including cost — which the village thought wasn’t “exceptionally high,” and the quality of service in its decision not to seek other bids. Officials also were concerned that if they sought bids they would get hit with price increases due to the high cost of gas at the time, Tilton said.

Zabrocki and Siegers said neither clout nor politics played any role in the garbage deal.

“Why would it?” Zabrocki said. “We went to that company because they provided good service to the village.”

“I would take offense to that, that I got the contract because I know people,” Siegers said.

The mayor said it’s natural for business owners to also be community leaders and volunteer their time for the village, which Siegers does as a commissioner. Zabrocki said he won’t tell people who do business with the village not to get involved, because “that’s a bunch of crap.”

Government experts raised concerns about transparency and conflict of interest in the garbage deal.

“They don’t seem to understand either the importance or the process of preventing or minimizing conflicts of interest and making sure taxpayers are getting the best deal,” said David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Local roots

Siegers’ roots in Tinley Park date to the 1970s when, as a teenager, he and his family moved to the suburb from Chicago’s South Side.

Not long after, Siegers took a job at a Tinley Park hardware store owned by the Bettenhausens, an influential local family. Village officials would often gather at the store in those days, he recalled.

“It was the place to meet,” Siegers said. It was there that Siegers said he got to know “everyone.”

In 1983, Siegers founded Tinley Park Disposal with his father-in-law, who ran a construction company that has also done business with the village. Siegers would drive the truck in the morning and make sales calls in the afternoon. He was the company’s only employee.

“I named my company Tinley Park Disposal for a reason, because I was hoping to get Tinley Park customers,” Siegers said recently, wearing a work uniform with his nickname, “Big Al,” across the chest.

Within a decade, Siegers’ growing business merged with other garbage companies, Homewood Disposal and Nu-Way.

Under different names, the garbage company has made campaign contributions totaling at least $7,500 to Tinley Park officials since 1994, state records show.

Tinley Park Disposal obtained the garbage contract from the village in 1993, records show. At the time, there were multiple garbage companies serving the village’s residents without government involvement, but that changed as Illinois began implementing new rules, officials said.

Siegers said the company being local was a “key” element in obtaining the contract but said his partners handled all the negotiations. He had nothing to do with the terms of the initial deal or any of the contract extensions in the years since, he said.

“I negotiated none of it,” Siegers said. “It had nothing to do with my relationship with Tinley Park.”

Under the initial contract, residents were charged $12 for monthly collection, records show. Since inking the first agreement, the village has extended the company’s contract four times — in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011. There was no bidding process.

In the most recent contract, residents’ monthly garbage collection rate started at $21.48 and increased 3 percent each year. Residents now pay $23.46 a month. The garbage company serves nearly 12,000 customers in Tinley Park, Tilton said.

‘We’re getting beat up’

Village officials said they considered bidding out the contract in 2011 but decided not to after an internal review of “comparable communities” in the area, Tilton said.

The study found that for roughly the same service, Tinley Park residents were paying up to $3 more per month than nearby Orland Park, Palos Heights, Palos Park and Oak Forest, as well as comparable northwest suburbs Schaumburg and Palatine.

A few towns, including Lemont and Homer Glen, charged more than Tinley.

People in nearby Mokena, New Lenox and Lockport also paid less per month than Tinley Park residents for garbage but pay extra for additional services, such as yard waste pickup, the town’s research showed.

Zabrocki pointed out that the garbage company gives the town a good price to work special events and village functions.

“When you get into this whole contract thing, there’s things that go outside of a contract, like what kind of service do you get and how do you quantify that,” Zabrocki said. “How do you put a dollar figure on that? And that’s what this whole thing is (about).”

By contrast, neighboring Orland Park sought bids for its garbage contract in 2012. The village ultimately re-signed a 10-year deal with Waste Management in 2013, but the bid led to a slight decrease in residents’ monthly rates and expanded recycling services, said village spokesman Joe La Margo.

“We felt it was time to go out to bid, and it benefited us,” La Margo said. Orland residents pay $18.58 a month. While the rate will increase 2.5 percent each year, residents in Orland Park won’t pay as much as Tinley Park residents do at any point during the decadelong contract.

Zabrocki defended Tinley Park’s track record and said questions about local officials who also do business with the village are unfair.

“I really feel strongly we run a damn good town,” Zabrocki said. “We’re getting beat up, and we don’t deserve it.”

Zabrocki hailed Siegers, who he said is one of the town’s most influential residents, for helping shape Tinley Park into a strong community.

The esteem is mutual. Siegers said he is a supporter of the town’s leaders and gladly gives personal campaign contributions.

“Good government doesn’t just happen,” Siegers said. “People have to campaign for re-election, and if they solicit for some campaign funds, myself, I like to support good government and good leaders.”