CLEARWATER — Private trash haulers showed up at City Hall this week and begged officials not to punish them because some failed to follow Clearwater's rules.
But city leaders, fed up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees, decided to send them a message.
At Thursday's City Council meeting, the council approved changes to city regulations that would give Clearwater a virtual monopoly on the collection of certain construction debris within city limits. Clearwater's solid waste department would basically have exclusive rights to provide large roll-off dumpsters.
But the 4-1 decision is not as harsh as it sounds. The changes, if granted final approval later this month, won't take effect for three years. And city leaders agreed to reconsider the legislation within a year. If most haulers follow the rules, the council will likely rescind the changes altogether.
Solid waste director Earl Gloster said his department proposed exclusivity because his staff spent a lot of time, about 1,200 hours a year, trying to get commercial haulers to pay their 15 percent surcharge and follow other rules. A 2006 audit showed that haulers shortchanged the city $457,348, he said.
Nine out of 10 haulers were in arrears, he said.
"This bad behavior has got to stop," said council member Carlen Petersen. "It's costing the taxpayers a lot of money."
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson, the only council member to vote against the legislation, said it wasn't necessary and it punished those who were doing the right thing.
"I believe they have the message," Gibson said.
Council member George Cretekos agreed with Gibson, but reluctantly voted in favor of the legislation to show that the council was united.
Asked Cretekos: "Are we penalizing a whole industry just because one or two people … "
"No sir," broke in Gloster. "Because just about all of them that operate here were caught up in this audit and the numbers were staggering."
Most of the 10 or so commercial haulers who spoke at the meeting said they were the good guys.
Clearwater requires them to register to operate roll-off trash bins in the city and to pay 15 percent of their gross receipts.
In several cases, Petersen asked staff to verify their payment history.
In some cases, the haulers were minor offenders in the past. In others, they were not.
One hauler said he may have missed paying fees because he was confused about whether certain properties were in Clearwater. Another said he stopped paying for a while because he thought the city was using his invoices to set its own rates.
Officials disputed most of the excuses. Annexation confusion didn't account for high-dollar delinquencies, they said. And Gloster said city rates are set by rate studies and by ordinance.
Most of the haulers have shown improvement since the audit, Gloster said. About half are complying with the rules. But several have failed to renew their permits, turn in monthly invoices or pay their fees.
Bill Krimmel, district facilities manager for Waste Services of Florida Inc., said it would be a mistake to penalize the haulers now.
"The economy is struggling. The last thing we need to do is put people out of work," he said.
Nick DiCeglie, owner of Solar Sanitation, asked the council to work with responsible haulers to find a solution.
DiCeglie said city leaders made a "decent compromise." But it still puts pressure on business people at a tough time, he said.
"You don't want to put a time frame on somebody's livelihood," he said.
The council is slated to take a final vote on the legislation Feb. 18.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.