Pinellas County has a deal for St. Petersburg: We'll reduce carbon emissions, extend the life of the landfill and provide curbside recycling to every household, all at no extra cost to taxpayers.
And City Hall wants no part of it.
The county's ongoing effort to bring free curbside recycling to every residence in Pinellas has been met with firm opposition from Mayor Rick Baker, who questions the financial and environmental benefits of the initiative. St. Petersburg is one of the largest cities in Florida without curbside recycling, a fact that has overshadowed Baker's administration since he took office in 2001.
"Our position remains we want to recycle cost-effectively and environmentally," said Mike Connors, the city's internal services administrator. "We want to work with the county more closely, evaluating all recycling options."
The county collects about $26-million more than it spends on trash disposal each year, a surplus that usually is either banked or spent on capital improvements.
Under the new proposal, $7.2-million would pay for 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.
The County Commission tentatively approved the program Tuesday and directed its staff to find a company to provide the service.
But Connors, who addressed the commission Tuesday, said he would prefer if the county returned the excess money to the cities and reduced garbage fees.
The county charges $37.50 per ton to dispose of waste, which governments pass on to residents through sanitation fees.
Pinellas Park also supports a refund. "This is a lot of money to initiate a new program at a time when taxpayers are looking at finding some relief," said spokesman Tim Caddell. "The thing we keep hearing from everybody right now is that it doesn't really matter what pot it comes out of, it is still our money."
Still, Pinellas Park, which has had curbside recycling for nearly two decades, applauded the county's overall intent, leaving St. Petersburg as the sole critic of the county's environmental efforts.
St. Petersburg officials argue that other recycling options, such as yard waste collection, are more efficient. Yard waste is more bulky than recyclable items such as paper and aluminium, so it should be a priority, said Connors.
Curbside recycling also translates to more fuel-hungry trucks on the road, Connors said. He estimates curbside collection would require an extra 25,000 gallons of fuel, producing 20 tons of engine exhaust in St. Petersburg alone. The city prefers residents use any of the dozens of dropoff recycling centers across the county, which requires them to use their own vehicles to get there.
County officials, however, dispute Connors' claims.
The county 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 equivalent of removing 16,600 passenger cars from the road.
Interim county administrator Fred Marquis asked whether Connors had any evidence to support his claim that dropoff recycling uses less fuel than curbside recycling.
"I'm not able to prove that," Connors said. "But I'm not so sure anyone can disprove that."
County Commissioner Calvin Harris said it was a little selfish to ask that the waste fees be returned.
"We are talking about quality of life for everyone in Pinellas County," he said.
Most trash is burned at the county's waste energy plant. But about 200,000 tons of waste are added to the county's landfill each year.
Recyclable items make up about 34 percent of waste items, or more than four times that of yard waste, according to the county's 2007 waste composition study.
"Our primary objective is to send zero waste to the landfill" and curbside recycling would help do that, said Andy Fairbanks, the county's waste reduction program supervisor. "I think in the end it really boils down to a difference of policy or opinion. They have theirs and we have ours."
The city's opposition also doesn't sit well with some green-minded residents, who recently started an e-mail drive to persuade City Hall to accept the county's gift.
"The program would conserve energy and natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emission and reduce our carbon footprint on the planet," wrote activist Rebecca Falkenberry. "Who could oppose this action?"
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.