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HEAP OF TROUBLE WITH TRASH

With less going to landfills, Hernando County lays off workers and considers outsourcing major operations.

Even the garbage business suffers when the economy is in the dumps.

That reality hit home for four employees at the Hernando County landfill who learned last week that they were losing their jobs. The reductions come as Hernando utilities officials cut costs to offset missing revenue.

With two other major landfill operations in line to be farmed out to private companies, more county jobs are expected to be lost in the coming months.

As many as 15 people could lose positions at the county's Recycling Materials Processing Center, if those employees are not picked up by a private company chosen to take over the operation.

Much like the county departments operating under the general fund, which officials have been slicing because of a shortfall in property tax revenue, the county's free-standing enterprise funds based on fees have also lost revenue and are facing similarly tough choices.

The amount of garbage and debris has gone down at a time when people aren't consuming as many products and building as many homes.

That means lower fees collected at the landfill.

Just two years ago, the county collected 127,000 tons of trash. That dropped to 118,000 last year and is projected to be 114,000 this year.

The county is also gearing up to expand the landfill, driving up costs, Utilities Director Joe Stapf said. And more funds are lost when the county diverts some commercial trash to other counties' facilities in order to extend the life of the existing landfill cell.

The county's recycling center is also a money-losing proposition.

Last year, the center made $1 million in revenue from selling materials. This year, that income will plummet to about $400,000, based on the sorting and baling of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 tons of recyclable materials. Operation costs are about $1.3 million.

When the County Commission in May decided not to increase the solid waste assessment - the $63.05 that residential property owners pay on their tax bills for landfill costs - Stapf had to start looking for other ways to make up for revenue reductions.

"We don't have enough income to operate the way things have traditionally been operated,'' Stapf said.

The result: Reduced hours at neighborhood convenience centers, shuffled duties, a reassessment of equipment needs and the elimination of jobs.

"There aren't a lot of options when we were told that there would be no increase in the solid waste assessment,'' said Scott Harper, solid waste services manager.

Two of the employees who were told they will be without work were spotters, who made sure that material that does not belong in the landfill, such as hazardous waste, doesn't get in. They also made sure yard waste and construction debris went where it belonged.

The positions were eliminated last week, Stapf said.

Those tasks now will be the job of the equipment operators.

The two other positions were attendants not needed with the reduced hours at the convenience centers. Those are considered layoffs, but the workers might be called back if needed. The layoffs are effective Sept. 25.

Stapf said staffers are trying to be as efficient as possible and work with the smallest crew to get the job done, but it's unclear how many people that will take.

Clearly the largest hit on the county staff will come if the commission approves a private company to take over the recycling center. But Stapf said officials will consider several factors as they select a company.

Price will be part of the equation, but so might special consideration for a company that would take on some of the county workers, he said.

While a private company will also face the same weak market for recyclables, Stapf said some of the potential bidders have talked about expanding the recycling operation so it could collect goods from Citrus and Sumter counties, allowing for a more efficient and profitable use of the recycling center.

The request for proposals for privatization is winding its way through the county's Purchasing and Legal departments, and a change in the operation isn't expected until late this year or early in 2010.

In addition, the county recently advertised for bids for a private company to take over excavation and the moving of dirt at the landfill.

Bids on that operation, which would also reduce the county's landfill workforce, are slated to be opened Sept. 30.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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