ST. PETERSBURG — A majority of City Council members favor a proposed countywide curbside recycling program, but they aren't going to fight for it unless Mayor Rick Baker supports it.
And so far, he doesn't.
It's a delicate power struggle defined by the city's strong mayor form of government. The council controls the purse strings, but Baker oversees all city employees, affording him a managerial veto on all council initiatives that require staffing. In order to prevail, council members must wage political war or seek a compromise.
"He has to be on board obviously because he is the mayor," said council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "It's like we can tell him to build a pool, and if he chooses not to build it, he isn't going to build it."
Already, one council member is trying to broker an alternative plan, and others say they aren't sure how to change Baker's mind.
St. Petersburg is the largest city in the state without curbside pickup. That fact has shadowed Baker's administration since he took office in 2001, but the county's effort to bring curbside recycling to every residence in Pinellas at no extra cost has raised new debate on his policies.
Baker, who supports recycling but not curbside pickup, questions the financial and environmental benefits of curbside programs.
"I still have questions about it, that's the honest truth," he said.
At least five of the eight council members — Bennett, Leslie Curran, Bill Dudley, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse — support curbside recycling.
"Times have changed," Curran said. "But for some reason (Baker) is stuck on this."
Council member Jeff Danner said he favors curbside recycling but wants to be sure the county's program is the best use of taxpayer's dollars. The two other council members, Herb Polson and Jim Kennedy, said they didn't know enough about the county's initiative to have an opinion.
Newton called for the council to discuss the matter at its meeting Thursday.
Nurse sent a letter to the county Monday detailing a compromise. He suggested the city implement weekly curbside yard waste collection and monthly curbside recyclable collection.
"It would be difficult to jam this down his throat," Nurse said of Baker. "My fear was that we would end up in some kind of Mexican standoff."
Under the county's proposal, $7.2-million in annual surplus sanitation revenue would go toward countywide curbside recycling. The 21 cities that now provide curbside recycling would be reimbursed. The three municipalities without curbside collection, including St. Petersburg, could use the new county service or receive funding to create their own programs.
Baker is the only local leader questioning the environmental benefits of the proposal.
He has asked the county to consider lowering its waste fee and refunding the surplus instead of using it for curbside pickup. The county charges $37.50 per ton to dispose of waste, which governments pass on to residents through sanitation fees.
"People are hurting out there, and if we can provide some relief, that would be a good thing," Baker said.
Other recycling options, such as yard waste collection, are more efficient, he argues. His reasoning is that yard waste is more bulky than recyclable items such as paper and aluminium, so it should be a priority.
The city staff estimates curbside collection would require an extra 25,000 gallons of fuel.
The county, however, estimates 4.8-million gallons of gas would be saved if 440 tons of recyclable material were picked up curbside instead of at collection centers. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 20,900 metric tons.
The city also argues that the program could hurt small businesses that collect recyclables.
Greg Foster, founder of St. Pete Recycling Solutions, serves 700 people and charges $15 a month. He doesn't know what he will do if the county puts him out of business. "My program is already in place," he said. "This is something citizens can do now as opposed to talking about it or debating it."
But Al Soto, director of the nonprofit Louise Graham Regeneration Center, said he isn't worried.
"We have folks that live by here, and they drop off their cardboard," he said. "That isn't going to change."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.