TAMPA — Nobody liked it, but the City Council agreed Thursday to raise Tampa's garbage pickup rates five times over the next four years.
By late 2015, businesses will pay 76 percent more than they do now for city garbage service. Residential customers will pay 38 percent more.
The rate increases are the city's first since 2005, and officials say they had no choice.
Revenue is down because of the recession and foreclosures. Meanwhile, costs are up for fuel, truck maintenance, health insurance and pensions.
"It's not pretty," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said this week. "If I didn't think this was our best, last, only option, I certainly wouldn't be raising rates."
On April 1, rates for businesses will rise 12 percent. They will go up another 12 percent each Oct. 1 in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Also on April 1, residential rates will go up 15 percent — from $25.25 to $29.04 per month. Customers older than 65 will see their rate rise from $22.25 to $25.59.
By 2015, residential rates will go up four more times, eventually reaching $34.91 per month ($30.76 per month for customers 65 and older).
The rate increases will raise more than $3.3 million this year.
But residents and entrepreneurs said they come at the worst time.
"Small businesses cannot afford these kinds of increases," said Frank Giardina, the owner of Buccaneer Linen Service. "If I did that to my customers, I'd be fired."
Council member Frank Reddick said he could not support such dramatic rate hikes.
"We are going to put a tremendous financial burden on a lot of people," he said. "Everything is going up except your paycheck."
Council member Mary Mulhern also voted no, saying she needs to see the administration commit to making changes resulting in long-term efficiencies in areas like recycling and the use of fuel.
Because of falling revenue and rising costs, the solid waste department could start running an operating deficit of $8.9 million in 2013, rising to $55.3 million in 2016.
Failing to close that gap could lead Tampa to default on $109 million in solid waste bonds. If that happened, credit rating agencies would downgrade Tampa's credit. And that would drive up the cost of borrowing money for all kinds of projects.
"It would be close to catastrophic," city chief financial officer Sonya Little said. "It goes beyond just the solid waste department. We're talking citywide."
City officials said they have already taken steps like cutting staff and closing the Manhattan Avenue brush disposal site to reduce solid waste operating expenses by $4.3 million per year.
That's not enough, some residents said.
"This is ridiculous," said Susan Long, a past president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association. She said the city should explore privatizing collection, like in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
"If the county can do it with private haulers," she said, "we should, too."
But Buckhorn said this week he does not want to privatize solid waste collection because it could ultimately cost the city more, especially if a hurricane covered the city with debris.
With its own garbage trucks, the city could clean up faster and more cheaply than if it was "at the mercy of the private haulers, who will charge you an ungodly amount of money to come in in a situation like that," he said.
With its own trucks, Tampa also can clean up after parades like Gasparilla and do its own programs, such as annual cleanup days when people can put out all manner of junk for pickup, he said.
In a separate 6-1 vote, with Reddick voting no, the council gave initial approval to begin charging commercial garbage haulers who work in the city Tampa's first-ever franchise fees. Surrounding communities charge the fees, but Tampa does not.
Those fees are expected to raise $325,000 this year and $1.3 million a year starting in 2013.
A final vote on the franchise fees is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. March 1.