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Lealman crowd speaks out on garbage pickup idea

(ran South, East, West, Seminole editions)

At a meeting to measure community support for unified garbage service, county officials heard from Lealman neighbors _ loud and clear, as expected. Most of the fretting focused on when and how much they would be billed.

Many of the estimated 200 in attendance Wednesday night objected to having the garbage fee tacked on to their property tax bills. Others were concerned about the "administrative fee" Pinellas County would charge for sending the bills and collecting the money.

The cost would be unknown, they were told, until the County Commission created the garbage district and bids were received. But county officials assured residents that the price almost surely will be less than what most neighbors with garbage service are currently paying.

When county officials asked for a show of hands, the vast majority of people showed they want the unified service. But the straw poll came late in the evening after many had left.

A community survey is the next likely step.

A gauge of the support for unified garbage service is important for County Commissioner Karen Seel, who stayed throughout the 2{-hour meeting. Seel said after she would support sending a survey before the commission takes any action.

"This community will tell us" what they think, Seel said.

Seel said the fears of higher prices were unfounded. If the county asks for bids and receives none that are worthwhile, the commissioners have the option of allowing Lealman residents to return to their current system.

"I think the majority of folks here tonight support it to one extent or another," said Commissioner Ken Welch, whose district encompasses most of Lealman. "I still support it. As usual, folks in Lealman tell you what's on their mind."

Under Lealman's current system, residents individually contract with companies for trash and garbage service.

Rates from the same company for the same level of service vary from person to person. Rates overall are much higher than what is charged in Pinellas Park and Kenneth City.

In some cases, pickup is on different days. Some neighborhoods always have garbage cans on the streets and trash trucks wandering up and down their streets every day.

Some people have no service whatsoever and allow trash to build up in their yards or sit on the side of the road until scavengers pick it up.

The area's revitalization team, made up of community members, saw the mess as one of the big stumbling blocks to making Lealman an attractive place to live.

Despite a year of trying, the Lealman Community Association was unable to negotiate a unified garbage service. Ray Neri, the group's president, said the companies ultimately acknowledged they charge Lealman residents more "because they can."

So the Lealman association appealed to the county. After another year of work, county staff members have tailored a plan to fit Lealman's needs. If it works here, the concept could spread throughout unincorporated Pinellas.

The county would create a Municipal Services Benefit Unit, or MSBU, in a defined area of east Lealman (see map). The county then would advertise for bids. If the bids were acceptable, officials would contract with a garbage company to provide twice-a-week service at a price lower than folks are paying now.

Residents would receive the bill once a year with their property tax bill.

Therein lies the angst.

Lealman resident Johanna Clocker said she recycles most everything and takes what little garbage she has to the landfill for about $1 a month.

"I don't think you can beat that rate," Clocker said. "I can't afford your low rates."

Vickie Brenner also worried about the rates, saying, "Please don't do this to me because I cannot afford it."

Warren Smith, director of Pinellas County Utilities, told the audience: "It was never our intention to do something to you. We're here to try to help this community. . . . Common sense tells you it's going to be less costly."

Mitch Kessler, president of Kessler Consulting, which the county hired to help solve Lealman's problem, agreed that the price almost certainly will be less. The average around the state, he said, is $10 a month.

Lealman neighbors report fees of $20 a month or even higher.

Rod Laroque, who moved to Lealman from south Pasadena two days before the meeting, said he paid $31.28 every three months for garbage service until he moved. Then he got estimates of $57 to $63 for three months of service here.

"I canceled my garbage service," Laroque said. "I couldn't afford it."

He was skeptical of the county proposal. Like others, he worried about its being mandatory and being attached to the tax bills.

Kristin Holmes, who moved to Lealman from Dunedin in March, supported the proposal. In Dunedin, she paid $50 a month for water, sewer and garbage. In Lealman, she pays $63 every three months for trash service and $35 a month for water and sewer. That's about $5 a month more than in Dunedin.

"I like this," Holmes said. "I also like the idea of not as many trucks going down the street."

Said Dan Smith III: "Prices go up every day. . . . This is a chance to get prices to go down."

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