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Hernando environmental services director answers questions about trash collection referendum

Rare it is these days to find any resident who doesn't want to lower the cost of government.

In this year's general election, the county will ask voters whether they are interested in making changes to their trash collection system that could result in lower bills.

Voters will be asked whether they want to implement a universal, automated once-a-week garbage, recycling and yard waste pickup system. The results of the nonbinding referendum will be one piece of information commissioners consider as they fashion a new agreement with waste haulers.

The current agreements expire on Sept. 30, 2011.

Officials say customers might save from $20 to $25 per year on their garbage costs if a universal system were fully adopted.

But officials acknowledge there's a lot of confusion about the proposal.

As Joe Stapf, the county's director of environmental services, has appeared before community group meetings to discuss the referendum, he says he has found that there are plenty of questions. They have ranged from where people will be able to store the bins provided to why the county would even consider closing its two convenience centers.

He has also heard questions that have prompted him to add some options for haulers to consider as he prepares to seek bids.

His guess is that the discussion will not end with the final vote on the referendum and that public sessions will continue into next year as the commission grapples with the options.

For now, Stapf is sitting back to see what the voters have to say. And he wants them to have as much information as possible when they cast their ballots.

"Here is an opportunity to lower the cost of a government service. We can lower the cost of government," he said. "The question is, are people willing to do that in the face of a change or a reduction — real or perceived?"

Here are some of the frequently asked questions that Stapf says he's heard:

How will universal, automated collection work?

If approved by voters and the County Commission, every household in unincorporated Hernando County could receive trash collection services. There would be three pickups each week: one for garbage, one for yard trash and one for recycling.

Depending on what portions of the county vote in favor of the system, however, there may just be certain zones where the automated system is put in place. The final choice is up to the County Commission.

What are the details of the trash collection system and the bins that will be used?

The hauler will provide customers with color-coded, specially designed trash containers on wheels that the hauler can lift and dump directly into the special garbage trucks using the automated system.

Customers will get three 96-gallon containers: one for garbage, one for yard waste and one for recycling. The bins for recycling will have two separate compartments: one for the disposal of paper and cardboard and the other for cans and plastic.

Customers may request smaller 65-gallon containers. After 90 days, customers may ask to change the size or number of containers.

How much will it cost?

The county is currently preparing bid specifications for haulers to submit a menu of options and prices. The final costs will not be known until the County Commission settles on a garbage collection plan early next year.

County hauler franchise agreements expire at the end of September 2011, so changes in costs and services are possible on Oct. 1, whatever the vote. That is why the commission is seeking input from voters on what their preferences for change might be. Haulers have identified the universal, automated three-pickups-per-week system as the most efficient method of collection.

The county has advertised the system as cleaner, cheaper and faster. How will the universal system save money?

County officials expect savings in several areas.

The automated trucks only require one worker to operate, saving on the cost of staffing.

A countywide collection system would lower the cost per household.

Increased recycling will save landfill space, which will save property owners money on their annual solid waste assessment.

And, if the county decides to close remote recycling drop-off sites and the two existing convenience centers, additional savings will be realized.

What are the downsides of the service?

The service is not as frequent as the current garbage collection service. Instead of two days a week for garbage, the alternate system would collect garbage one day a week.

However, one-day-a-week yard waste and one-day-a-week recycling would be added, taking some of the waste stream away from the garbage.

Also, the service would be one-size-fits-all, which might not work well for each individual circumstance, officials have said.

Residents who do not currently have curbside collection, but instead take their trash to the convenience centers or the landfill, will have an added cost for the collection service if they are included in the system.

Why would people who do not get their garbage collected now and who instead take it to a convenience center at no cost want to pay for a universal system?

One of the county's goals is to try to more closely match what residents pay for their garbage service with the service they actually use. That means that, if convenience centers stay open, residents who use them and do not have garbage pickup service may have to pay extra on their annual solid waste assessment or pay to use the centers.

Currently, for every person who pays the annual $63.05 solid waste assessment, $12.41 of that goes toward the convenience centers, whether the person uses them or not. Approximately 18,000 properties in the county do not have garbage collection, compared to 59,000 that do.

Officials say the only way the convenience centers would close entirely is if the entire county went with the universal service. They have expressed some concern that closing the centers might bring an uptick in people dumping their garbage in the woods.

How will customers dispose of bulky items such as furniture or major appliances?

Under the terms proposed in the new hauling agreements, customers could request a pickup of such items up to four times a year without additional cost. Current franchise agreements allow two bulk pickups each year.

Those who have excessive amounts of yard waste can request a bulk pickup under those provisions.

Hazardous waste items such as car batteries, paint, oil, insecticides and pesticides will have to still be taken directly to the landfill.

Will the county add the cost of garbage collection to property tax bills so the cost is paid the same way residents pay the solid waste assessment?

That is a decision that the County Commission will make later. The argument for changing the billing system is that it would lower collection costs by eliminating the need for billing services.

What does a "yes" vote mean and what does a "no" vote mean after all of the votes are tallied?

Because the solid waste referendum is nonbinding, county officials will examine the results of the vote on a precinct-by-precinct basis. Using that information and other input, the County Commission will craft a garbage plan that could implement universal collection countywide, implement it just in particular areas or reject the plan altogether.

Regardless of the vote, there may still be changes in service or prices on Oct. 1, 2011, since new franchise agreements will go into effect on that date.

Will the vote have an impact on customers who get their garbage collected by the city of Brooksville?

No. The referendum question will not appear on the ballots of voters inside the Brooksville city limits, and the city has no current plans for changes in its systems for collecting garbage, recyclables or yard waste.

Where can I learn more about the referendum?

Visit co.hernando.fl.us/trashtalk.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

.At a glance

Ballot question

"Do you favor implementing universal automated once-per-week garbage, yard waste and recycling pickup services?"

Hernando environmental services director answers questions about trash collection referendum 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 1:56pm]

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