CLEARWATER — The most frequent visitors to Clearwater Beach during Spring Break are college students, families — and sanitation workers.
Solid waste employees have to trek out to the packed beach two to three times per day during peak season as trash piles up in the metal bins that dot the shore. If they wait too long, birds begin to pick at the garbage mounds, creating an eyesore (or worse) at one of the region’s primary economic drivers.
Last month, the City Council decided to fork over nearly $1.6 million to avoid the unsightly trash pile-ups on the beach. That cash netted them seven Italian-manufactured underground trash storage units. Will the spending stop the sanitation runaround at the beach?
The city says yes. The new trash bins won’t have to be serviced as often, and they’ll help beautify the beach.
“You don’t get to be the number one beach in America without taking care of business like this,” solid waste director Earl Gloster said.
But questions remain.
At least some of the new containers won’t actually be on the beach. Three of the underground units will collect trash near the beach access point at Mandalay Park. Three more will reside off of Mandalay Avenue near the beach Hilton, and one unit donated by the supplier will service Spectrum Field, the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bryant Johnson, the city’s assistant solid waste director, said beach access trash cans often see the most action during peak season.
The purchase could raise eyebrows for another reason. In September, the council voted to increase solid waste collection fees 3.75 percent every year until 2024. An average family will see an increase of a little over one dollar per month each year.
City staff justified the increase in part by saying that recycling has gotten more expensive for the city. But the hiked fees also contribute to solid waste’s reserves, which will pay for the underground trash cans.
$1.57 million will be spent on the purchasing and installation of seven Underground Refuse System bins and a truck that will service them. The installation involves digging holes, installing the systems and equipping a truck with a crane to lift the bins.
Once everything is installed, the system will appear at ground level as sleek-looking recycling and trash cans. The above-ground part deposits waste into 5 cubic yards of trash storage space underground. When the system is serviced, the underground bin has to be lifted out of the ground by the crane. As that happens, a mechanical platform rises to ground level to cover the hole left when the underground part is lifted out. Sensors in the receptacles will let workers know how full the bins are from afar.
In Kissimmee, the first American city to adopt the technology, sanitation superintendent Jody Kirkendall says it is working splendidly. Trash is being collected efficiently, and the city’s downtown looks better.
The Clearwater City Council bought into the underground system after just a few minutes of public discussion. The expenditure was so uncontroversial, it was put on the council’s consent agenda, which is reserved for mundane items that are almost always approved at once.
Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell, who approved the expenditure before it went before the council, said he thought of the new underground system as a “trial run that we may be able to use in other areas.”
Gloster said he hopes to eventually install the bins in more places around the city. If the underground trash cans prove to be more easily serviced, the city could save money in the long term, he said.
But the bins aren’t foolproof. More specifically, they’re not waterproof. Even though six of the units will rest just a few hundred feet from the Gulf of Mexico, if too much water seeps underground, it will have to be pumped out, Gloster said.
City emails also show that Clearwater’s purchasing department had some doubts about the expenditure weeks before it was approved.
“It’s concerning that we reached this point of process (department ready to purchase) without ever having had a conversation with Purchasing,” wrote purchasing manager Alyce Benge on Sept. 23 — about three weeks before the council vote.
However, later in the same email, Benge recommended that the city buy the underground system. She no longer works for the city.