ST. PETERSBURG — As the city prepares to bring universal curbside recycling to its 76,000 homes, questions are being raised about how the city will select a vendor for the service.
With the city requesting proposals from private haulers on Tuesday, council member Darden Rice fears homeowners won't get the best rates if the bid combines processing and collection into one contract.
She pointed to Hillsborough County getting multiple bidders and competitive prices when it awarded contracts for its recycling and residential trash services in 2013. The county bid out processing and collection separately.
"We need to look for ways to knock these fees down," Rice said.
A longtime recycling advocate, Rice also predicts that some major trash haulers will not bid since one company already operates a processing center in St. Petersburg. Two other big firms would face higher costs by hauling materials to Tampa and Lakeland.
Mayor Rick Kriseman said he wants the lowest prices.
"That's a valid concern," he said Friday about the bid, vowing to make sure it draws competition from vendors.
Public Works Administrator Mike Connors has estimated that if the city provides the service, equipment would cost about $12 million and homeowners would pay about $5.20 a month. He predicted vendors would do it for about $3 a month.
Kriseman cautioned that nothing is finalized as the program is still being developed. If vendors come back with high prices, "we'll take a second look at doing it internally," the mayor stressed.
In April 2013, the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters released a report showing the city trails others when it comes to recycling glass, plastic and other materials.
Currently, residents pay $22.33 each month for twice-weekly trash removal. A voluntary curbside-recycling program costs homeowners $3.75 per month. In comparison, many other Pinellas cities charge lower monthly fees for trash removal and include recycling in the cost.
In 2013, Hillsborough County switched from two 18-gallon bins at each home to automated recycling with large rolling containers. The prior contract had been in place for more than 16 years.
Although the biggest trash firms held the older contracts, the separated bidding process netted seven vendors vying for five geographical service areas. The biggest three firms kept the work, but the prices dropped about $10 a year.
Homeowners pay a yearly assessment of $222.75, an average of $18.56 per month.
"The whole process was initiated to drive down the cost," said John Lyons, public works director there. "It did reduce the rates for customers."
Rice and council member Karl Nurse want to make sure that the city's Sanitation Department can't provide the service cheaper than private haulers.
Rice suggested asking another city that offers recycling to verify the numbers or to hire a consultant, adding: "It would be prudent to ask for an independent verification."
At this point, Kriseman said that isn't necessary.
"I'd like to wait until we see what we get from the privates before spending any money to review our numbers," he said.
Of Florida's biggest cities, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale outsource residential trash service and recycling. Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Hialeah use city employees.
"We need to look at why other cities have lower costs," council member Steve Kornell said, noting that he isn't in favor of hiring a consultant. "We should start with our staff."
Nurse and Rice both want the city to perform the work.
While his attempt failed, Nurse said he urged the city and the Service Employee International Union, which represents sanitation workers, to negotiate a deal for the service.
He added: "They don't want to step up to the bat on that."