Curbside recycling pickup in Pinellas County has foundered so much even a start date has been erased.
A St. Petersburg-based progressive group is now trying to "light a fire" under cautious county commissioners. Progress Florida, led by board member Darden Rice, has launched a petition drive asking the commission to begin the service instead of continuing to delay it over questions.
Calling the measure "off track" when people thought it was a "done deal," Rice asked people in an e-mail last week to "light a fire under the County Commission" and prod them to begin the service.
"I think we've got the facts on our side. We've 'workshopped' this to death," Rice said.
The e-mail asks people to sign a petition to the county on the group's Web site. Rice claimed 600 people signed up in the first 24 hours after Thursday's message, though county officials said they had little response by then.
The county had planned to use extra solid waste service revenue to pay for weekly curbside recycling pickup. Pinellas is the largest county in Florida without the service; most of its cities — except St. Petersburg — already do it.
Under the proposal, the county would pay for a contractor to pick up the goods or reimburse cities that already have the service. St. Petersburg, where residents have asked for service and the city demurred financing it, decided to accept the county's offer.
But questions by the County Commission over cost have left a start date in the lurch. A year ago, the county planned to begin Jan. 1. Then in the fall, it was pushed back to June 2010.
A request for bids was canceled, as was a planned workshop in December to discuss it. Some haulers with private contracts for service in unincorporated areas complained.
County Administrator Bob LaSala expects to take a series of options for recycling to the board within 30 to 40 days, but noted that doesn't necessarily mean they will name a start date.
Now, Progress Florida is stepping in. The left-leaning group has pressed a number of causes, such as advocating for gay people in St. Petersburg and opposing offshore drilling in Florida. Rice, a board member, is a political activist who lost a bid for County Commission in 2008 and a 2005 bid for St. Petersburg's council.
St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse blamed the delay on Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, saying they've "dragged their feet."
Bostock and Brickfield questioned the value of spending an estimated $10 million a year to add a few years of life to the landfill and not dramatically raise the rate of recycling. Bostock also said adding another burner at the county's waste-to-energy incinerator — which produces electricity — would be more cost effective.
"We have to look at the big picture. We can't just jump into a costly door-to-door pickup," Bostock said.
With the county facing mounting budget deficits, they've also questioned spending millions on a new program. But the solid waste funding is limited to solid waste programs under county policy, so it can't pay deficits in the general fund.
"I do think it's ridiculous to hear commissioners openly suggest we should put the money into another burner or put the money into other departments," Rice said.
But Commissioner Susan Latvala and other commissioners also have questioned the cost and details behind the service, slowing down the program.
"It didn't go back to staff because two people were asking questions about it," Brickfield said. "It doesn't work that way."
Commissioners also questioned how it would work with a proposal to start county-regulated trash pickup in unincorporated areas within three years. Some haulers, who already do trash and recycling pickup, warned they could lose business.
To broker a solution, Bob Hauser, the county's solid waste director, and other officials have discussed options with commissioners in meetings this month.
Commissioner Ken Welch has proposed phasing in the service, starting in St. Petersburg and Lealman, where trash pickup is already in place. He acknowledged the difficulty in trying to start weekly recycling where county-regulated garbage service doesn't yet exist. But the petition drive represents interest in having the program, too. "I think it reflects the desire for curbside recycling in the large segments of the county," Welch said.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.