TAMPA — Last week, a trash hauler missed the pick-up in Ken Weber’s neighborhood of North Forest Hills. The next day, the county announced the hauler, Waste Connections, was suspending curbside recycling service to 136,000 customers because of a driver shortage.
But the real eye-opener came later in the week. Weber and all residential property owners received notifications the county proposed to increase the annual trash collection assessment by $55, a 40 percent jump over the current $131.43 fee.
“It’s kind of ironic,‘' said Weber. “At the same time collection is being decreased, they’re asking me for more money.‘'
The reason for the proposed increase?
It is “required to compensate the franchise collectors for ongoing solid waste collection services,‘' according to documents shared with Hillsborough County commissioners as part of their June 17 meeting.
Weber wasn’t the only one dismayed.
“It’s was really bad timing and a little insulting,‘' said Kaye Garcia of Valencia Lakes in Wimauma. “They tell us, ‘We’re not taking your recycling.’ Then, bam! Here, now give us more money.‘'
Call it the convergence of coronavirus and curbside collection costs.
For their annual assessment, residents are supposed to receive twice-a-week trash pick-up and once-a-week collection of both recyclable materials and yard waste. (A separate annual disposal fee of just less than $103 is not changing.)
At one point, Waste Connections, one of three haulers serving the county, had 13 percent of its 208-employee local workforce out sick because of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The company told the county about the trouble June 18 and offered a solution that the county accepted: Keep picking up trash two times a week, but forgo the recycling service.
Commissioner Ken Hagan called the missed pick-ups “a meltdown'' that flooded the county with both phone and email complaints. He asked the county staff for a response plan in the event other haulers face the same staff shortages.
The county received more than 5,400 complaints of missed service from Waste Connections’ customers during June 15-27. Combined, the other two haulers serving Hillsborough, Republic Services of Florida and Waste Management, totaled 108 customer complaints for the same two-week period.
“The increase in COVID cases has been well documented and the county of Hillsborough has had tremendous increase. We were susceptible to very much the same situation,‘' Damian Ribar, Waste Connections’ vice president for Florida, said about suspending recycling pick-up.
Waste Connections and the other haulers also were susceptible to cost increases since they bid for the county’s trash franchises seven years ago. Those contracts, negotiated at the end of the Great Recession, were a bargain for residents with the annual assessment at the time dropping by $17 to its current level.
The price is significantly below the rest of the market, according to a county survey of other localities in the region and state. Combined, the three carriers serve an estimated 303,000 customers who pay on average $8.32 a month, or about 35 cents a day below the rest of the market.
Since the contracts began, haulers said their expenses have risen because of maintenance on automated trucks and costs for alternative fuel, a scarcity of labor during the pre-coronaviurs robust economy, growth requiring trucks to spend more time in traffic, and increased work hours adding to labor costs.
The current contracts are scheduled to expire Sept. 30. After an aborted attempt at seeking new agreements in 2019, the county is again soliciting requests from haulers. The county scrapped plans for a three-year extension and, in the interim, will go with a so-called bridge contract for 16 months before the new franchise agreements go into effect Feb. 1, 2022.
To keep the current haulers around, the county plans to up the payments to the existing companies via the $55 assessment increase.
Multiply that planned increase by the 303,000 customers and the result is a $16.6 million one-year windfall to be shared among the three haulers. County staff members also projected that annual assessment could go up again in the following two years.
Commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing July 15 on the proposed assessment increase for 2021. Commissioners also said they want quality of service to be considered along with price when negotiating the new contracts. That is a reminder that the county issued a legal notice to Republic Services in 2019 to either fix its service errors or risk being fired.
Still, the haulers had at least one commissioner sympathetic to their situation.
“We’re just so low that I am surprised they still want to haul our trash, because they’re really not getting paid very much to do what people — our residents — expect, and that’s good trash pick-up,‘' said Commissioner Sandy Murman.
Weber, too, said he understands the need for price increases.
“It’s not surprising. Everything is going up. I’m sure gas (prices) will go back up,‘' he said. “It’s going to cost more to do what they were doing. But, I could use that extra $55 in my pocket.‘'
Both he and Garcia said they hope some recycling service can be restored soon. Weber said even once a month pick-up would be helpful. He plans to keep putting his recycling into his blue bin until it overflows.
Garcia said she, too, planned to keep recycling by rinsing out and saving her yogurt cartons, glass, plastic and wine bottles. But, taking the recyclables to the county waste center can be inconvenient, she said.
“We try to do our thing on keeping green,‘' Garcia said, “and it’s a little bit of a burden now.“