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Politics

City residents pay 66% more than county dwellers for trash

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:02 AM
TAMPA -

Hillsborough County residential garbage customers will soon be enjoying lower rates at the same time the county's private haulers modernize their fleets with automated pick-up.

But in Tampa, which automated its garbage service some time ago, rates are headed skyward.

Why the disparity?

City officials will tell you it's not an apples-to-apples comparison.

A densely populated city and a sprawling, suburban-rural county are different organisms. City dwellers often pay more for services so they can enjoy urban amenities that rural residents do without.

"There are a lot of things the city does to enhance the quality of life for residents that the county doesn't do," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Yet the contrast is stark. After seeking bids last year, county commissioners recently approved an automated garbage plan that will lower collection rates. The final rate reduction won't be known until county officials complete a rate study later this year. But Utilities Director John Lyons said the decrease will likely be about $20 a year.

Twenty dollars doesn't sound like a big deal until you look at what's happening to Tampa residents. In April, the city council, acting on a recommendation from Buckhorn, raised garbage rates by 15 percent, followed by a 10 percent increase in October.

And that wasn't the end of the pain for city garbage customers. Their bills will go up another 3 percent in October and 3 percent again in each of the next two years.

Even before Tampa officials started hiking fees, city residents paid substantially more than their county cousins. The total garbage bill for residential collection in the county this year is $231.17. City residents, on the other hand, are paying $383.28 a year, about 66 percent more.

Tampa officials acknowledge their customers pay higher rates, but they also get more services. For instance, Tampa still picks up dead animals and provides an annual chemical and electronics collection at the curb.

The county quit picking up animal carcasses because of budget cuts in the animal services department. And county residents who want to safely dispose of hazardous chemicals and electronics have to drive to one of three regional drop-off facilities.

The city also does an annual Clean Sweep when residents can put almost anything by the road to be picked up, from refrigerators to mattresses to leftover debris from a household renovation. County residents must take their large throwaways to the three regional drop-off centers.

When it comes to the costs that drive rates, the county has some big advantages, said Tampa solid waste Director Tonja Brickhouse.

For one, the three companies that have hauling contracts with the county also collect all commercial waste in the unincorporated areas, allowing them to subsidize lower residential rates.

"The private haulers (in the county) bid on residential rates, but they have free rein to do any commercial business they can," Brickhouse said. "That enables them to keep their residential rates low."

In contrast, Tampa's solid waste department picks up about 60 percent of the commercial waste generated in the city, with the rest collected by Waste Management, one of the companies that collects residential and commercial garbage in the county.

To make up some of that lost revenue, the city council in April approved a 15 percent franchise fee on commercial waste collected by private haulers in the city.

Brickhouse also pointed out that property owners in the county pay for waste collection and disposal, whether their parcels get garbage service or not.

In the city, only residents who get water and sewer service pay a garbage bill.

"When you collect on everybody who pays taxes versus collecting only on people who get water and wastewater service, there's going to be a difference in the pool that would contribute to the rate difference," Brickhouse said.

The biggest difference between the two systems is that the county contracts waste collection out to private haulers while Tampa handles its collection and disposal in-house.

This year, the county bid out collection services for the first time since the mid-1990s. County officials were elated with the results. Rates will be lower, even though the private haulers must make the costly transition from garbage collectors to automated service.

And customers will still enjoy twice-a-week garbage collection, weekly automated recycling and weekly manual yard trash pick-up.

"From the perspective of government, (bidding out collection) is how we should be doing it, and we saw a cost savings as a result," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "So it was definitely the right decision."

Buckhorn said the city made the decision years ago, before he took office, to maintain control over garbage collection. It's a position the mayor supports, and he rejects any thought of bidding out collection to private haulers, even if it means lower rates.

One reason the mayor wants to keep garbage collection in-house is to service the big events held in the city, from the annual Gasparilla parade to last year's Republican National Convention.

The cost of cleaning up after those events is built into the monthly rates paid by residential customers.

"To enhance the quality of life for our residents, we made the decision to keep it in-house and assess rates that accurately reflect the cost of providing those services," Buckhorn said.

"We did it to provide services for all the other activities in Tampa that require solid waste pick-up, and if you had a private hauler do it, you would pay for it," he said.

Owning the system is also an advantage for the city in natural disasters, Buckhorn said.

Using private haulers to clean up debris after a hurricane would cost the city two or three times more than if the solid waste department did it.

As for the series of rate hikes approved by the council last year, Buckhorn said he had no choice.

The solid waste department was in danger of defaulting on its bonds as the recession and housing foreclosures shrank its customer base.

"I had a solid waste department that, for whatever reasons, the rate structure hadn't kept up with the cost of service," Buckhorn said.

"If you're going to run a city agency like a business, you've got to have fees that reflect the cost of that service."

Although he rejects bidding out garbage services, Buckhorn said he hasn't ruled out once-a-week collection as a means of saving money in the future. The mayor said the issue needs more study.

City and county residents seem to favor twice-a-week garbage collection. But the industry is moving to cut that in half, said Mitch Kessler, a consultant hired by the county to help with the bidding process. The city of Sarasota started collecting garbage once a week in September 2010.

"Ideally, (once-a-week) has less trucks on the road," Kessler said, meaning fewer road repairs, lower fuel and oil costs, and lower pollutant emissions. But polls and surveys conducted by the county showed Hillsborough residents aren't ready for such a dramatic shift, Kessler said.

That could change as county residents get used to the large, rolling trash and recycling bins that come with automation. Kessler said as automation takes hold, recycling increases, meaning less waste that needs to go into the garbage bin.

Sharpe and county Commissioner Al Higginbotham were ready to vote for the once-a-week approach at a Jan. 10 workshop, but they saw they were in the minority.

"I have some concerns about the buildup of waste and the smell, but once-a-week provides cost savings," Sharpe said. "You'll see a far greater use of recyclables, and that will provide a solid revenue stream for the county."

Tampa has converted to automated garbage collection and is distributing automated recycling bins. When that conversion is complete, Brickhouse said, she wants to implement a "pay as you throw" system that would charge lower rates to households using smaller carts, which means less waste.

Sharpe, who lives in Tampa, said he would like to see lower rates and he is betting Buckhorn will find a way to provide some relief.

"Our current mayor has shown a great willingness to re-examine everything in an effort to try to save money," Sharpe said. "He's a smart guy; he's looking for ways to save and to protect the ratepayer."


msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303

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