ST. PETERSBURG — After the failure of the city's first curbside recycling program, Mayor Bill Foster is now proposing that the city pay up to $72,000 a year to subsidize service with another disposal company.
The City Council will vote Thursday on a three-year contract with Waste Pro of Florida, which would keep a voluntary curbside program in the city through 2015.
The program, which would begin when 4,000 customers enroll, would cost residents $3.75 per month. That's more than the old service, which cost $2.75 per month, but less than the $4.50 Waste Pro would receive because the city will subsidize that rate by $0.75 per month per customer.
The subsidy will increase to $1 a month per customer if 6,000 households don't enroll in the first year.
The money would come from the city paying fewer dumping fees at the landfill, Foster said.
Some recycling proponents were upset to hear the program isn't mandatory like other programs in the region, where municipal governments include the monthly fee in utility bills.
"All of this could be alleviated with the city doing the work," said Ray Wunderlich III, who faults top city leaders for not pushing a mandatory program. "It takes political will. "
St. Petersburg residents, Foster said, don't want a mandatory program. "To institute that citywide, there's still not a big enough cry," he said. "It's not free. It would have to be paid for by customers."
Residents will get a separate bill for recycling, but the city and Waste Pro would work to synchronize recycling pickup days with the city's trash days, said Michael Connors, the city's public works administrator.
Curbside recycling lagged far below expectations despite the initial public clamor when Waste Services of Florida Inc. started the service in 2010. Only 7,249 out of 76,290 homes use the service, which will end this fall.
WSI had told city leaders it would need 8,000 paying subscribers to justify renewing its contract. The company had hoped to sign up three times as many households willing to pay $33 a year for curbside recycling.
Council member Steve Kornell, who enrolled in the original recycling program, said he will vote for the new contract since it's better than not having a program. He says a mandatory program is crucial, not just another voluntary service.
"Some subsidy is fine," Kornell said. "This is about being a knee-jerk reaction. We haven't given it a serious discussion."
He is baffled that more residents don't use the curbside service and said they might be against paying another fee, adding: "There's a lot of people not recycling at all."
But the numbers show St. Petersburg residents are a recycling bunch, they just didn't embrace curbside.
The city's 16 free dropoff centers — which residents, businesses and nonresidents pay nothing to use — collected nearly 4,481 tons of refuse in 2011, twice the amount that WSI recycled via curbside service.
St. Petersburg lags behind Florida's other major cities and falls short in terms of practicing the economic and sustainable values of a green city, said Darden Rice, the group's president.
"The bottom line is that subscription-based curbside recycling efforts is a half measure," she said. "It is time for St. Pete to approach this issue with innovation and ideas instead of half-steps and excuses."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.