TAMPA — It will take more than just changing the way customers are billed to avoid a financial crisis looming at the city of Tampa's solid-waste department, city officials say.
"We will have to increase rates" whether or not a proposed change in billing is approved, city chief financial officer Sonya Little told City Council members last week.
Tampa's garbage pickup rates have not gone up since 2006. Officials say they're considering a rate hike each year for the next five years, as well as a first-ever franchise fee to private haulers that work inside the city.
To improve billing, they want to move away from sending residential customers monthly bills and instead charge them annually on their property tax bills. That is done in New Tampa, where Hillsborough County handles garbage pickup.
The problem is that the solid-waste department finds itself on the wrong end of some bad trends:
• The city has put off replacing vehicles in an aging fleet whose maintenance costs are rising.
• Despite cutting employees — from 232 in 2009 to 217 now — personnel costs such as pension contributions and health care have risen.
• Fuel costs more.
• Revenues are dropping, largely because the bad economy and a wave of foreclosures means the city has lost many solid-waste customers.
In response, the city has cut the department's operating expenses by $4.3 million per year by selling nonferrous metal recovered from incinerator ash, discontinuing "makeup" pickups after some holidays, closing the Manhattan Avenue brush disposal site, and taking other steps.
Those won't be enough to close the gap, so on Dec. 1, the City Council voted to take one in a series of steps to create the annual assessment. That's expected to bring the city another $1.5 million per year by reducing administrative expenses and providing a more stable source of revenue. A final vote on the idea is expected in May or June.
But city officials also say they expect to propose rate increases in February. If approved, the new rates would go into effect in April.
They did not say what they would propose. Instead, they outlined several possible scenarios during a council workshop.
In one — where the annual assessments are created — commercial rates would rise 12 percent per year for five years. Residential rates would rise 10 percent next year, 7 percent in 2013 and 6 percent in each of the next three years.
In this scenario, the cost of residential pickup would rise from the current $25.25 to $35.40 per month in 2016. And instead of a monthly bill, charges would be rolled into one annual assessment, which would total nearly $425 in 2016.
Not doing the annual assessment would mean rates would have to rise more, officials said. Under that scenario, the cost of residential pickup could hit $40.85 per month by 2016.
Doing nothing would be worst of all, officials say.
Without some action, the department is projected to run an operating deficit of $8.9 million by the end of 2013. That deficit would grow to a staggering $55.3 million by the end of 2016.
"Doing business as usual, we're in big trouble after fiscal year 2012," Little said.
Along with the annual assessment, city officials also want to start charging a franchise fee to private haulers who pick up inside Tampa. Surrounding communities charge the fee, but Tampa does not. Creating a franchise fee would bring in an estimated $1.3 million a year.
Officials say the franchise fee, the rate increases and the assessment all could come up for critical council votes in February and March.
The annual assessments, the idea most in the news lately, appear to have a few potential sticking points.
For one, homeowners would be charged the assessment even if their houses were vacant. (Undeveloped lots with no utility service would not be charged.)
Some landlords are unable to rent their houses, so they've turned off the water and electricity, but under the city's assessment plan, they still would have to pay for garbage pickup, said Seminole Heights civic activist Susan Long.
"They're struggling keeping those properties — they can't sell them — and now they get to pay a fee for something they're not getting," Long said. "It's very annoying to them."
Council Chairman Charlie Miranda likewise said he is troubled by the idea of charging a solid-waste pickup fee to empty houses that aren't throwing anything away.
"I don't know how you all are going to convince me," he told members of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's senior staff.
Several of Miranda's colleagues said they think the city can do more to reduce costs by creating incentives for residents to recycle more or by making better use of technology.
Council member Harry Cohen recommended looking into an innovative garbage-sorting system he saw on a recent trade mission to Israel.
Other council members pointed to programs in other states aimed at reducing the amount of waste thrown away.
They urged city officials to take a long view, and to consider fundamental changes to create a better, more efficient system.
"There are ways to have a recycling program that isn't bleeding all over," council member Lisa Montelione said. "There are ways to do this, and I don't know why we are not doing this."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.