Officials from Waste Management Inc., the county's Spring Hill waste hauler, were battered with questions Tuesday from irate residents unhappy with the company's performance and its recent attempt to collect on unpaid fees.
Rick Chancey, company's district manager, was asked to explain a letter recently sent to residents of Spring Hill's mandatory garbage collection area demanding money. The letters came as a surprise to many, who had never been billed by Waste Management for garbage pickup.
"We are just trying to collect something we think is rightfully ours," Chancey told residents and county commissioners, some of whom were apparently as incensed as their constituents.
The root of the controversy probably dates as far back as 1992, when Spring Hill residents voted 22,784-to-5,173 to have mandatory garbage collection. Today, garbage pickup is compulsory in ZIP codes 34606, 34608 and most of 34609. The charge is $6.58 a month, paid quartely in advance.
According to Chancey and Stephanie Burkhardt, Hernando's solid waste manager, the billing rolls for mandatory collection became outdated as people moved away and newcomers arrived. As a result, they said, some people have been getting garbage collection for years without paying while others haven't been getting billed or getting their trash picked up.
The scope of the problem became clear in July, Chancey said, when the county expanded mandatory recycling from the 34608 ZIP code to 34606 and 34609.
While developing a billing system for the recycling program, which costs $1.60 a month, Chancey said he discovered that as many as 6,500 homes were not being billed for garbage collection.
So, the company went to the county property appraiser, Chancey said, got the names of those not being charged and mailed a letter demanding payment for garbage collection from July 1, the date the recycling program expanded.
To many among the 2,000 people who have been mailed the letters to date, the notice is an outrage.
"I think it's a dirty rotten shame," said David Caldwell, 73. "They ought to be run out of the county so fast their heels are on fire."
Caldwell, who refuses to pay for either garbage collection or recycling, echoed the sentiments of many in the audience, mostly retired men, who said they enjoyed taking their refuse to waste transfer stations.
One angry man said he needed to go fetch his blood pressure medication after passionately telling board members he would prefer to spend $2 on gas to haul his recycleables away himself than $1.60 for Waste Management to do the job. Not only residents, but some county commissioners took a hard line with Chancey and his company.
"Now the burden falls on us because you screwed up your billing," County Commissioner Diane Rowden told Chancey. "It really has created a mess."
The letter served to throw kindling on an already volatile situation. Many residents said they resent being forced to pay for recycling and garbage collection, particularly when the service is being provided in such a shoddy manner.
Joanne Murray, 47, arrived with a filled black plastic garbage bag which she said had gone uncollected in front of her home for several weeks.
Dropping it at the speaker's podium in the board's chamber, Murray asked Chancey: "Would you be kind enough to take it with you so I know I'm getting my money's worth?"
Chancey did so. And promised to work with county staff to improve Waste Management's job performance.
As for the demand in the mass mailing, he stepped back, saying in letters to the remaining 4,500 of the unbilled, the company would only charge for garbage collection since Oct. 1. Unpaid recycling charges, however, will remain backdated to July 1, Chancey said.
Those who have already paid for garbage collection since July 1 will get a credit on future bills, and notices will be sent out telling the 4,500 that they will soon be getting a bill, what the bill is for and why they must pay.
The story may not end there, however.
On Nov. 18, the staff is to present the board with proposals to reduce or eliminate the recycling charge while somehow keeping the program afloat. Rowden and County Commissioner Robert Schenck said at that time they will propose referendums.
Schenck's will ask Spring Hill residents whether they want mandatory recycling, Robinson's whether residents want mandatory garbage collection.
While letting the people decide may be ideal, and a smart political move, County Attorney Garth Coller reminded the board that the results of any referendum would not affect Waste Management's contract with the county.
Whatever the people may decide, Coller said, the county is still bound by the contract unless it has been breached or Waste Management absolves Hernando.
Those having problems with garbage collection and recycling in Spring Hill are asked to call Chancey toll-free at 1-800-255-7127, or Chuck Lewis, the county Regulation and Franchise administrator at (352) 540-6770.
_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.