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Recycling bill mixups warrant clear answers

Considering the criticisms and resentment some residents have exhibited toward Waste Management Inc. because of shortcomings and misunderstandings regarding the mandatory curbside recycling program, one would think the garbage collection company would be keenly aware of the need to emphasize communication with its customers in Spring Hill.

But the Pasco-based firm made a public relations misstep when it sent a letter recently to more than 6,000 residents in the 32,000-home mandatory collection area, billing them retroactively for services they didn't know they owed. Worse, some people in the mandatory collection area never even knew they were eligible for the service, and others used it but thought it was included in their annual solid waste assessment fee of $62.50.

Waste Management only asked for payment back to July 1, which is when the mandatory recycling program kicked in. But that $1.60 per month fee, coupled with the $6.58 per month for garbage pickup, both of which are billed three months in advance, understandably produced sticker shock for many residents, who have bombarded the Hernando County Commission with complaints. The fallout is scheduled for discussion at today's County Commission meeting.

Waste Management is clearly entitled to payment for services rendered, including the collections of solid waste and recyclables. But the company bears responsibility for not keeping their records up to date. Accordingly, the garbage hauler should not be surprised by the negative reaction from confused customers or that some county commissioners are perturbed that they were blindsided by the controversy.

In particular, Commissioner Diane Rowden is upset that when she called Waste Management for an explanation, she was told that the County Commission had instructed the company to mail the one-page letter. If any commissioners did so, they must have done it privately, because the issue was never discussed by the board at a public meeting.

And that's part of the problem. If the matter had been brought out in public, it most likely would have drawn debate and been covered in the newspapers. That would have provided the affected customers with some warning before they received the bills and also would have given the commissioners and their Solid Waste Department managers an opportunity to make suggestions that could have made the announcement more palatable and easier to understand.

Such poor decision-making reflects badly on the company and county government because it provides critics of the curbside recycling program with fodder to undermine its very worthwhile goals and accomplishments.

At today's meeting, the commissioners should make it clear that such mixups, especially ones that affect thousands of people, merit more than casual interest from Waste Management, as well as any other private vendors that provide services to their constituents.