TAMPA — Hillsborough commissioners decided Thursday to seek new bids on residential garbage pickup, signaling the end of a 17-year monopoly by three haulers as well as lower prices and possible service changes for nearly 250,000 customers.
Big money is at stake: Contracts could total $50 million a year, a price tag that had existing haulers lobbying hard to maintain the current setup and prospective companies fighting just as hard for a piece of the action.
And few things will hit home for residents as much as garbage service that stinks.
"If we do not deliver the same service, (at) less cost, people will be picketing County Center," said Commissioner Sandy Murman.
The vote at Thursday's workshop was unanimous, 6-0, with Chairman Ken Hagan absent. Under the county's bid proposal, haulers would compete to offer services to as many as two of five new franchise districts, each of which would have around 50,000 customers.
Most significant for customers: Haulers would submit prices for four different service options.
One would keep service the same: twice-weekly pickup for garbage and weekly recyclable and yard waste services. That option would continue using resident-provided trash cans.
Another option would keep the twice weekly pickup frequency but provide customers with standardized garbage cans.
The third option would provide customers with the standardized garbage cans but reduce pickup to once a week. Another option, the cheapest for customers, would reduce recycling pick-up to every other week.
Bids will come back to commissioners, who will decide how to proceed.
Under the current setup, three haulers — Waste Management, Waste Services and Republic Services — pick up residential garbage in defined areas at negotiated rates. In return, the trio gets exclusive rights to compete for most commercial garbage pickup throughout the county, setting their own rates.
That commercial pickup is a moneymaker, with the county's consultant estimating the haulers make a total of roughly $30 million to $40 million annually. The new proposal would maintain the open market for commercial pickup but impose new reporting requirements on haulers.
At least half a dozen haulers are expected to submit bids. The contracts for the three existing haulers do not expire until late 2013.
Current rates for households top out at $11.18 a month for the twice-weekly pickup and weekly recycling and yard waste service, officials said.
Commissioners spent most of Thursday's meeting tweaking some portions of the proposal, such as specifying the geographic region (Gulf states plus Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina) from which bidders may be based. The idea was to make sure the haulers' workers are used to working in hot summers and stormy weather.
Commissioner Victor Crist, who last year said he was leaning toward renegotiating with existing haulers, added a requirement that bidders provide five years of financial and service performance records. He also asked that the county allow residents a choice in the size of their standardized garbage can. He said deed-restricted communities in his district fine homeowners who leave cans in the driveway, and he didn't want the huge cans that he's seen in St. Petersburg.
"You can't fit your car in the garage with that can," he said.
Taking a formal vote at workshops is not prohibited under the commission's rules, but it is unusual, prompting Crist to attempt, unsuccessfully, to delay the vote until next week's regular board meeting.
Because Thursday's meeting was a workshop, it did not include any time for public comment.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of the leading voices for putting the services out to competitive bid, said the discussion had been going on since December. Any delay, he said, "would be a back-door way of not going out to bid."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.