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RECYCLING REMAINS ELUSIVE

As cost estimates balloon and disputes arise, Pinellas putters toward curbside service.

Despite years of work, a new curbside recycling program in Pinellas County remains no closer to making its first pickup.

Some Pinellas County commissioners have begun to question the wisdom of adding an expensive service when budget cuts have forced deep reductions in parks, health care for the poor, and law enforcement.

Originally estimated to cost $10 million a year, the new service showed up in the proposed 2010 county budget with a $25.1 million price tag.

County officials attribute the spike to one-time startup costs, like the 200,000 bins the county will have to buy at $50 each.

The service was slated to begin Jan. 1, but that date has been pushed back to May. And that's only an estimate. No deals have been made with cities or contractors.

"I think back in September, I was being stupidly optimistic when I said Jan. 1," said Bob Hauser, Pinellas' director of solid waste.

It's the latest evidence of the difficulty in bringing curbside recycling to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, the largest city and county in Florida without it.

The service would provide once-a-week plucking of paper, plastic and glass from 64-gallon containers in St. Petersburg, Madeira Beach and unincorporated areas, which lack curbside service. Cities with existing programs could be reimbursed for their costs.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker had resisted curbside recycling, because he questioned its cost-effectiveness and worried about pollution from collection trucks. The county's draft bid documents require ultra-low sulfur diesel trucks to be used.

St. Petersburg later agreed to the program when Pinellas offered to pick up the entire tab.

Still, the new $25.1 million cost "only heightens" St. Petersburg's concerns over cost and efficiency, said Michael Connors, the city's internal services administrator.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford have pledged support for curbside recycling, though Ford has said her backing is contingent on the county paying for it.

The county plans to use surplus money from landfill tipping fees and power sold from its incinerator to pay for the program. That surplus is estimated to be $15 million next year.

Without having bid the service yet, the program's exact cost is unknown, Hauser said. Because of that, the county budgeted high to include more expensive collection methods and the cost of buying small carts for residents to put recyclables out. He said the roughly $10 million cost for the bins will be spread over more than one year.

Given the uncertainty over the costs, Commissioner Susan Latvala said she doesn't know enough to say whether she's optimistic that the program will begin this spring. Further, she stressed that the program has yet to receive formal approval.

There was even talk during Tuesday's commission meeting about using the surplus solid waste funds to make up for cuts elsewhere.

Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, who joined the board after the curbside project launched, suggested phasing in curbside recycling to lessen its immediate costs.

Even if the cost was just $10 million, Bostock said, the county should rethink the service altogether.

"I support recycling," she said. "I'm against this idea of curbside recycling."

Instead, Bostock suggested using the surplus to maintain the waste-to-energy incinerator and other solid-waste operations - as well as adding a fourth burner to the plant. That would still reduce the amount of garbage sent to the landfill, and more recycling dropoff locations could be added, she said.

A new burner would cost $100million to $160 million and last approximately 25 years, she said, while curbside recycling for that time period would cost roughly $250 million.

But Hauser disputed the need for a fourth burner.

The current incinerator doesn't run at capacity, he said, and a new one wouldn't necessarily dent the stream of waste.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he remains committed to curbside recycling.

The staff has demonstrated that the county is in a good financial position to run the program, he said. And curbside service has the best appeal to recycling advocates.

"The best way to increase recycling in the residential sector is to make it easy to use," said Ron Hendricks, director of Florida's recycling program. "And the best way to do that is curbside recycling."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Fast Facts

Numbers on recycling

-Only 22 percent of Pinellas County's single-family households have curbside recycling, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection statistics from 2007, the most recent year available.

-Now, the county recycles about 2,000 tons a year through dropoff locations. Curbside recycling is projected to boost that to 45,000 tons a year.

-The program would give 183,400 residents curbside service.

-Overall, the county recycles 25 percent of its waste.

Sources: Pinellas County solid waste department and Florida Department of Environmental Protection

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