Pinellas County revives curbside recycling program, with an added twist

Pinellas County is reviving its long delayed plan to provide curbside recycling to residents living in unincorporated areas.

But the latest proposal adds a wrinkle to the plan: It would force residents to use a county-selected waste company to pick up their garbage, too. Those residents currently contract with a private hauler of their choice because the county does not provide trash service.

While county officials say the change could save residents money through lower negotiated fees, neighborhood leaders and private waste haulers are skeptical.

"That's where we have to have the communication on this. Where does it serve us to subsidize the operations and create our own operation?" Commissioner Norm Roche asked of adding garbage service with recycling pickup.

The unincorporated areas are the last parts of Pinellas without full curbside recycling service, though some residents and neighborhoods contract for it. St. Petersburg, which had been the lone holdout among Pinellas' 24 cities, began curbside recycling last year.

Pinellas Solid Waste director Bob Hauser and other top county officials have briefed most commissioners on the new plan, which is set to come before the board in March.

While Hauser said all options are open, a written presentation to commissioners recommends one proposal.

Starting in 2013, the county-hired haulers in Pinellas would collect trash, recyclables and yard waste. The county would be divided into districts, with different contracts for each. Homeowners would pay for the service with a new fee on property tax bills.

The cost isn't certain, but county officials estimate it averaging between $15 to $20 a month.

The program would cost $11.4 million the first year, then drop to $9.6 million in 2014 because startup costs are eliminated, according to county budget estimates.

The program can't begin until 2013 because of a state law that requires local governments franchising trash collection to give a three-year notice before taking it over. That clock started in October 2009 with a 4-3 vote by the commission. Plus, there's start-up time required by haulers.

"You can't award them a contract and start collecting next week," Hauser said.

The county conducted a poll in December to gauge resident support for the plan.

Residents were asked if they would support the county hiring a hauler in their neighborhoods to provide a "high level" of collection services — trash, yard waste and recycling — that "could reduce most residents' costs by 20 percent to 30 percent for all of these services."

Among 508 unincorporated residents in single-family homes, 53.5 percent supported the plan, while 13 percent somewhat supported it. And 26.2 percent opposed it and 7.3 percent were uncertain.

The poll, done by Research Data Services of Tampa, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Opposition to the government-run garbage pick-up already has formed in areas near Seminole and East Lake. Besides questioning the savings, they warn their homeowners associations will lose out because they build a trash pickup discount into membership fees.

If people don't have to become members, the associations' funding could shrink.

Though she agrees the latest proposal is more efficient, Commissioner Nancy Bostock wants more flexibility for neighborhoods to decide whether to join. She also wants to see more details on the costs.

"I got an overview — I did not get a very specific proposal," she said. "The beauty of it is it keeps it in the private sector and with the private haulers."

County officials say the new system could be more efficient than a previous proposal that the commission rejected.

Under that plan, the county would have contracted just for recycling pickup, using solid waste revenue from landfill and incinerator material to pay for it.

"Every presentation we've had has evoked more questions. It is not cost effective to do recycling on its own. You just take that to the next step," Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said.

The old plan also called for cities to be reimbursed for the costs of their programs, an option that was still included in a budget forecast released last month.

But Commissioners Neil Brickfield, Bostock, Latvala and Roche said they don't support that subsidy, making for at least a four-vote majority.

Meanwhile, haulers are wary of the program, too. Waste Services, which provides curbside recycling in St. Petersburg, has 30,000 unincorporated customers, including 10,000 who pay for curbside recycling.

The rates generally are $15 to $20 a month, depending on services offered and neighborhood.

Like other haulers, company officials don't want to lose their business, though they plan to bid for any county program.

"This is a very competitive industry. … This will be a very, very competitive bid to get those districts," said Bill Krimmel, district manager.

Despite calling the latest proposal an improvement, county commissioners' questions leave a program for curbside pickup — once slated to start in 2009 — still on the drawing board.

"I didn't have a high comfort level with everything," Brickfield said. "We don't know where it's going to be in March when they bring it to us."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County revives curbside recycling program, with an added twist 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 9:37pm]

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