TAMPA — Hillsborough County is joining the growing ranks of governments that offer automated curbside garbage pickup for residences, for both household waste and recyclables.
And thanks in part to increased competition in the industry, residents in the unincorporated areas can expect to spend less than they would have on the garbage collection part of their annual trash bill, by perhaps about $30. Frequency of pickup — twice weekly for garbage, once a week for recyclables and yard waste — will remain the same when the new service goes into effect for about 250,000 households Oct. 1.
Commissioners had considered less frequent pickups for greater savings, but bowed to residents who overwhelmingly said in town hall meetings and in a survey that they want to retain twice weekly collections.
"This is a major victory for citizens," said county Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has advocated seeking competitive bids for garbage pickup for some time. "I'm very proud."
Commissioners unanimously approved the changes at Thursday's board meeting.
It had been 16 years since Hillsborough County solicited fresh bids from trash-hauling companies for curbside pickup for residents in unincorporated areas. Currently, three private haulers serve geographical zones of the unincorporated county and compete against each other for contracts to haul waste from businesses and offices across those boundaries.
Residents of unincorporated Hillsborough currently place household garbage at the curbside in bins they purchase themselves. Same goes for yard waste. The county provides small plastic tubs for recyclables.
The county currently charges $148.60 annually for collection and another $82.57 for disposal of garbage, with the bills appearing on property owners' tax bills.
Before seeking bids, county officials carved the unincorporated area into five zones and allowed private haulers to submit competitive prices to haul waste in up to two of them. The same three companies that serve the county today — Waste Management of Tampa, Waste Services Inc. and Republic Services Inc. — won new contracts, but at average prices of less than a quarter of what they charge now after competing with other suitors. Their service areas will change.
Other factors, such as rising debt obligations of the county's solid waste division, will keep residents from realizing the full savings from the contracts.
"There will be a savings to the customer compared to what we would expect if we did nothing," said Bonnie Wise, chief financial administrator for the county. "If we did nothing and we just had our existing contracts, we know that the collection assessment would increase."
Before Oct. 1, residents will get new county-provided containers with lids for household garbage and recyclables but will continue to use their own containers for yard waste. Trucks outfitted with automated arms will lift and empty the household and recyclable waste bins.
The choice of the automated service bucked the preference of 800 residents surveyed by the county, 65 percent of whom said they preferred the same manual service they have now. But the commission said the more significant finding was that nearly 80 percent surveyed said they wanted twice weekly service maintained.
Automation will bring modernization of the garbage hauling system, making it safer, cleaner and cheaper long term since it requires less in labor costs. It is the prevailing trend in the industry. The cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Orlando are among those nearby with automated collections.
Commissioners expressed confidence residents will get used to and even come to like the new garbage bins.
"The days and times of having people hang off the backs of trucks is over," Commissioner Les Miller said. "Hillsborough County's not a rural county anymore and, you know, that's very dangerous."
Commissioners expressed concern about people losing jobs with the move to automation, but Higginbotham said he will suggest some effort to help laid off workers find new jobs at an upcoming meeting.
County staff must finalize contracts with the three haulers. They also must still make decisions about the size of the trash bins to be purchased, but said there likely will be some form of choice at least for household waste containers.
Bins for automated pickup typically come in sizes of 35, 65 and 95 gallons. The county likely would order all three sizes and make one standard — such as 65 gallons — allowing people to request smaller or larger ones based on their typical needs.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.