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Baker fought recycling in St. Pete, Kriseman embraced it. Will it matter in mayor's race?

ST. PETERSBURG — In the grudge match of a mayoral race between Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker, the debate over who will be a better steward of the environment has emerged as a major plot line.

Baker has assailed Kriseman's handling of the sewage crisis, which sparked multiple criminal investigations and led to a $326 million state consent order. This week, residents learned of an anticipated hike in residents' utility bills to help the city dig its way out of the problem.

But Kriseman has missed few opportunities to tout his endorsement by the Sierra Club's local chapter and initiatives in preparing for climate change and renewable energy sources. And he ridicules Baker's contention that no one knows to what extent humans have contributed to a changing environment. (Baker does favor reducing carbon emissions.)

But one issue dear to many environmentalists hasn't gotten much of a hearing in the race yet: recycling.

Yet it's an issue that divides the environmental records of Baker and Kriseman more than anything else.

Baker, serving as mayor from 2001 to 2010, fought efforts to implement curbside recycling. Kriseman made it a priority, and the city launched its recycling effort for single-family homes in June 2015.

Strangely, though, the mayor hasn't used recycling as a line of attack against Baker. He mentioned his recycling victory briefly in a pre-recorded segment at the outset of last week's televised debate, but otherwise it's been far down the list of accomplishments recited by Kriseman on the campaign trail.

Kriseman never pressed Baker during multiple mayoral forums on Baker's position.

So what are Baker's plans for the two-year-old program if he becomes mayor?

"I supported voluntary curbside recycling in the past," Baker said in a July 20 statement to the Tampa Bay Times, "but did not support mandatory curbside recycling as it is a very regressive tax on the poorest people in our community. I will evaluate the program's effectiveness after taking office. My present intention is to continue it going forward."

Phil Compton, a Sierra Club senior organizer who has been a recycling volunteer at Raymond James Stadium for 26 years, says Baker's vague commitment to the program is telling. As is Baker's record as an executive in Bill Edwards' organization. Edwards owns the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who play at Al Lang Stadium.

"All you need to know about Baker, recycling and his environmental perspective in general can be assessed by going to a Rowdies game. Unlike the Bucs, Rays, Bulls, Bolts and really every other sports venue in America, Rowdies fans are not provided with an opportunity to recycle their plastic water bottle or aluminum beer can," Compton wrote in an email.

"I can tell you that it would be very easy to accomplish recycling at a relatively small venue such as Al Lang. All it would take is the desire to do so."

Kriseman said when he served on the City Council, he remembers Baker opposed voluntary recycling, too.

"He fought us on it the whole time," Kriseman said in a recent interview. "He had no interest."

Kriseman's recycling record hasn't been an unalloyed success. An initial hiccup when the program debuted stirred passions because the city initially resisted alley pickups, citing the difficulty of trucks navigating the narrow spaces.

That stance enraged residents of traditional neighborhoods like Kenwood and the Old Northeast, and Kriseman soon changed course, ordering smaller trucks to begin alley pickups by the start of 2016.

The program is on solid ground, with the monthly participation rate holding steady at just over 60 percent during the last year. And monthly savings have increased from about $45,000 in April 2016 to $58,000 in June, the result of revenue from the processor and money saved from tipping fees at the dump.

The Sierra Club's Suncoast Group endorsed Kriseman earlier this month. Part of the reason was the mayor's ability to finally bring recycling to the city. Until 2015, St. Petersburg was the largest city in the state without a citywide program.

"It was definitely a positive side of the ledger for Kriseman," said the chapter's political committee chair, David Harbeitner. "We would love to see it go to the next level."

The next step would be to implement recycling for commercial sites and multi-family housing. The city's recycling processor doesn't have sufficient capacity to handle the increased load, Kriseman said earlier this month.

Still, he said, recycling is an important issue for a place that bills itself as the Sunshine City.

"It goes to the overall issue of who's looking out for the long-term impacts to the city from an environmental standpoint," Kriseman said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459.

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