A group of trash haulers that critics have called a cartel would lose its rights to a hefty chunk of Minneapolis households under a proposal before the City Council next week.

A potentially ground-shifting staff recommendation to be heard Monday by the council would strip Minneapolis Refuse Inc. (MRI), a consortium of 14 haulers, of 41 percent of the customers it now serves. Those residents would be awarded to Aspen Waste after the first price competition for the city's trash business in 37 years.

The 21,566 households that would be shifted if the council agrees are located in southwest Minneapolis. MRI would retain the rights to serve 30,780 households in the city's northwest quarter. City crews would continue to haul trash from the remaining half of the city's households, most of them east of Interstate 35W.

"I can't tell you how mad I am about this," said Greg Burt, owner of a small hauling company and chairman of MRI's board. MRI consists of a dozen smaller haulers, many of them family businesses, and two major national haulers, Waste Management and Allied Waste. Burt predicted some haulers would cease operating if the proposal is approved. Aspen, which is based in Minneapolis and hauls in eight cities, according to its website, couldn't be reached for comment.

MRI has hauled city trash since 1971, when haulers organized collecting routes with the city after the state banned open burning of trash. The city has contracted with MRI ever since, generally for five-year periods. State law governing trash hauling mandated that the city follow a lengthy process if it wanted to open the hauling contract to proposals. But the council finally resolved to do so in 2006; MRI has been asserting its rights in court since then, and Burt indicated he isn't ruling out more litigation.

City officials said that saving money is the prime reason for recommending that Aspen get two-fifths of MRI's business. After initial proposals and further negotiations, Aspen offered an average of $10.06 per household per month over a five-year contract, while MRI offered $10.49. Both are below what the city now pays.

"It will lower the price, and that's obviously a good thing in economic times like these," said Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy, who chairs the council committee overseeing public works.

The city asked MRI to guarantee it wouldn't sue for losing business to Aspen. It had as leverage a proposal from Aspen to serve the entire privately hauled area for less. But when MRI refused to waive legal options, the city didn't use that leverage.

Aspen's offer of $31.6 million to serve all 52,346 households for five years was about $800,000 cheaper than the recommended Aspen-MRI split. But state law allows the city to consider factors besides price in evaluating trash proposals.

Heidi Hamilton, the city's deputy director of public works, said a keeping a high level of satisfaction among residents and minimizing disruption to haulers were also city goals. Trash service currently is among the city's highest-rated services on resident surveys.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438