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City Council to address anger over St. Petersburg's new recycling program

St. Petersburg officials say the newly purchased recycling trucks are too large to travel through narrow alleys.
St. Petersburg officials say the newly purchased recycling trucks are too large to travel through narrow alleys.
Published Jun. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — As the last major Florida city to adopt universal curbside recycling, St. Petersburg had plenty of models to copy and years to get it right.

Tampa's program has run smoothly for years. Ditto for Clearwater.

But St. Peterburg's program hasn't even started, and it's already unpopular with some residents uneasy about its mandatory monthly fee, large containers and no alley pick ups.

"Get this stupid mayor out NOW!!!" said Marisa Dalla Valle in a May 5 email to Mayor Rick Kriseman, one of many laments among nearly 100 emails reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. "You have not finished hearing about this. You're an idiot."

Dalla Valle objected to the 95-gallon bright blue containers lining her street.

"I personally don't even want to see the monstrosity in my backyard or anywhere near my property," wrote Dalla Valle.

It's not just the color and size of the bins that's the problem. It's their location.

About 40 percent of residents get alley pickups for garbage, according to the city. But the recycling trucks the city bought are too large to squeeze through the alleys. So some residents will have to push the bins across their lawns, around their houses or even the block to leave them at the street curb in front.

Residents of neighborhoods like Kenwood and Old Northeast, who have had their garbage picked up in back alleys for years, are crying foul. The bins aren't just unwieldy, they complain, but unsightly, too.

"That's what alleys are for — to keep garbage and such away from the front of the house and out of the streets," wrote Linda Dobbs, who lives on Coffee Pot Boulevard NE in a May 27 email.

As the criticism has mounted, council member Darden Rice is asking for a public discussion today.

"I knew that when we rolled this out that there would be some rough patches in the road," said Rice, a long-time recycling advocate. "The good news is that this is something we can fix."

For now, Kriseman appears ready to ride out the frustration. His staff sticks to a mantra: be patient, big changes take time. Residents need time to process how to store the containers and when and where they'll be picked up, said Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator.

On Tuesday, Kriseman said changes might come, but only after the program is up and running.

"We recognize the system may need to be tweaked," Kriseman told the Times.

So why didn't the city buy smaller trucks that could fit in the alleys?

Connors said the city considered size as it planned the program since late 2013, but decided to go with the bigger trucks after consulting with officials in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"They were the ones that kind of told us not to do it in the alleys," Connors said. The Arizona officials said cramped alleys full of bins slowed traffic, he said.

Tampa gave different advice. In that city, just across the bay, universal curbside recycling started in 2000. Two years ago, the city switched to 95-gallon containers. At that point, Mark Wilfalk, Tampa's director of solid waste and environmental program management, met with homeowners in Hyde Park and Seminole Heights. Although curbside collection is cheaper, he appeased those neighborhoods by switching to smaller 65-gallon containers for about 800 homes and picked them up in the alleys.

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"I understand the historic meaning and we have to find ways to coexist," Wilfalk said.

St. Petersburg officials did ask about Tampa's roll out, Wilfalk said, but he's not surprised they decided to go a different route. "Every city is unique," he said.

Connors said it was a cost issue.

Smaller trucks mean less recyclables collected, forcing the city to buy more trucks. The city has spent more than $2.1 million for seven trucks.

Alleys with big recycling containers in addition to communal garbage bins and other obstructions would become too narrow for trucks, Connors said.

The recycling trucks— at 12 feet and 9 inches— are a foot taller than the city's older fleet of diesel garbage trucks, according to the city. That height difference matters in narrow alleys with sloping wires and vegetation, said Lynn Arthur, the city's assistant sanitation director.

Smaller trucks should be on the table for discussion, Rice said.

"It's abundantly clear that we have to be more flexible with residents who want alley pick ups," Rice said.

City officials point out that the complaints — while numbering in the hundreds— represent a fraction of the affected residents and are concentrated in older neighborhoods with alleys.

Council chairman Charlie Gerdes hasn't heard a lot of complaints from his west St. Petersburg constituents, but he agrees with Rice that the city should consider a more flexible approach.

Steve Kornell, who represents much of the city's southwest, said he hasn't heard a backlash in those neighborhoods. Those who are upset are irked about conflicting information and confusion over when the city would start collecting recyclables.

Connors said about two-thirds of the 80,000 bins have been dropped off to residents in single-family homes and apartments with up to four units. Larger apartment complexes and businesses won't have the service initially. Collections will start at the end of the month. Residents will be charged $2.95 a month whether or not they recycle — another hot spot for complaints.

For now, some tempers are running high.

"Mayor, do we live in a Dictatorship?" a June 2 email from Dyana Watkins asked. "Where we are forced into things we don't want?"

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

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