TAMPA — For the first time in more than 15 years, Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to seek competitive bids for curbside garbage pickup.
Commissioners, who had been split days ago on whether to simply extend contracts to the existing haulers, coalesced around bidding Wednesday after being greeted by a standing-room-only crowd. With few exceptions, residents urged commissioners to go to bid for the lucrative contracts.
Most striking was not the crowd, but the varied constituencies speakers represented. Sun City Center retirees spoke in unison with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Urban activist Michelle Patty banded together with tea party stalwart Karen Jaroch.
Former county Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Kemp even had a Kumbaya moment with Terry Kemple, whose Community Issues Council advocates socially conservative causes.
"I don't think Terry Kemple and I have ever been on the same side of anything," said Kemp, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor when she was a county commissioner. "We're talking about such a big, big contract, so I urge you to do the right thing."
The debate among commissioners was not particularly long-lasting after board members had taken about two hours of testimony. The outcome became clear when Democrat Les Miller, the perceived swing vote, said he would support seeking bids.
"We've clearly heard from the public," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has previously voiced support for renegotiating contracts with existing haulers.
Hagan warned the crowd of more than 150 people that seeking bids may not result in lower garbage rates for the county's roughly 250,000 residential customers. In cities and counties that have won lower rates through bidding, it has sometimes come with less frequent garbage pickup, he said.
At stake, for the county and companies seeking to do the work, are contracts that could top a half-billion dollars in value over the next decade.
Hillsborough County currently contracts with three companies for curbside garbage pickup, largely within the unincorporated areas: Waste Management, Waste Services and Republic Services. Each picks up residential waste in its own defined region, at negotiated monthly rates topping just more than $11 per customer, and compete for commercial garbage service throughout unincorporated Hillsborough.
The contracts are currently worth about $60 million annually combined. The last time commissioners sought bids was in 1996, with current contracts running into September 2013.
Commissioners gave representatives of each company, and prospective competitors, an opportunity to speak Wednesday. The incumbent haulers emphasized their high customer-satisfaction rates and reasonable prices.
A Waste Management executive asked commissioners to negotiate for three to four months, pledging to implement any rate savings immediately.
"We can put money in the taxpayers' pockets today," said Rick Kania, director of operations for Waste Management.
His comments didn't go over well with some speakers. Apollo Beach resident Beth Orvosh said that if Waste Management can afford to give residents a break, it should be doing so now.
"I mean, if he's willing to do that on just a renegotiation, what do you think would happen with a bid?" Orvosh asked commissioners. "I mean, really. I just wanted to smack the guy."
Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a supporter of bidding since the topic arose months ago, further faulted Waste Management for a phone bank it paid for in the days leading up to Wednesday's vote.
He said phone bank workers reached residents and offered to patch them through to commissioners, telling them that bids risked raising fees and reducing service.
Kania had told commissioners he believes both scenarios are possible and that the phone bank was meant to give them feedback from "real people" as they previously said they wanted.
Beckner said he was "infuriated" by the "lies and fearmongering."
There was only one issue before commissioners Wednesday, he said: "You either support an open free market or you don't."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.