Aug. 21 vote scheduled on increase in solid waste fees for City of Sarasota customers

Numerous factors cited by city staff as basis for proposal

This slide shows details about solid waste contractual costs for the City of Sarasota. ‘MSW’ stands for municipal solid waste. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Monday, Aug. 21, the Sarasota City Commission will conduct a public hearing on proposed increases in the fees the Solid Waste Department charges customers for garbage, recycling and yard waste.

If approved, the higher rates would take effect no sooner than Oct. 1, which will mark the start of the 2024 fiscal year.

Provided the commissioners vote in favor of the changes next week, a second vote of approval would be necessary to put the applicable ordinance into effect.

The Solid Waste staff has recommended three years of upticks, to contend with a variety of factors with which the department’s staff is contending. The initial rate hike would be 18%, followed by a 12% increase on Oct. 1, 2024, and then a 4% uptick on Oct. 1, 2025.

For residential customers, the first year’s increase would mean an extra $4.42, bringing the current rate of $24.55 to $28.97. For the second year, the total would be $32.45, and for the third year, the rate would climb to $35.05, the proposed ordinance says.

“For Commercial users,” the form notes, “the new proposed monthly rates will increase across the board for all containers for the next three years.”

The last time the city imposed a rate increase for solid waste customers was in 2018, staff has noted.

The proposed new rate ordinance is scheduled for consideration as the third item under Legislative Public Hearings on the Aug. 21 agenda.

During a May 9 workshop, Doug Jeffcoat, the director of the city’s Public Works Department, and Todd Kucharski, general manager of that department, explained to the commissioners the various factors that have led to the proposed new ordinance. Among them are higher contractual expenses for the city, inflation, supply chain delays, increased fuel costs and labor challenges, Jeffcoat and Kucharski pointed out.

For example, Jeffcoat said, in 2018, the city paid $354 per load hauled by truck from the city’s transfer station to the Sarasota County landfill. This year, that fee is $387.12, or $33.12 more.

For another example, he continued, the city paid $48.33 per ton to dispose of solid waste in the county landfill in 2018; this year, that fee is $51.48 per ton.

The cost of recycling also has risen, he pointed out. Moreover, the city has seen wide swings in recent years in regard to the amount of revenue it receives from recycling. The city pays a processing fee for the recycling, Jeffcoat said, and then it shares in the proceeds from sales of the materials.

The processing fee for recyclables was $80 a ton in 2018, a slide noted. This year, the figure is $96.63, or $16.63 more.

As for revenue: in the 2019-20 fiscal year, the city received $99,326 in revenue, a slide said. The following year, the amount went up almost $200,000, to $298,198. Then, in the 2021-22 fiscal year, it rose to $415,826.

This year, however, the total is expected to drop to $198,000.

“Basically,” he told the commissioners, “the same amount of tonnages” through those years were recorded. “It’s just how the market works.”

Jeffcoat also showed the commissioners a slide with average market values for specific types of recycled goods. For example, the chart showed, mixed paper had an average market value of $18 per ton in January 2022. In January of this year, the city had to pay 36 cents a ton to have those materials processed.

This chart compares city recycling figures for January 2022 and January of this year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

For another example, aluminum cans that had been sorted and baled had an average market value of $32.87 in January 2022; this January, the figure was $27.55.

“Recycling is no longer a local thing,” Jeffcoat added. “The markets are worldwide. And what impacts [other countries, such as Japan and China], has a direct impact in regards to what we see in the markets that we deliver [to] and work in.”

The ‘Chinese Sword’ and other cost factors

Especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, Jeffcoat continued, a greater emphasis has been placed on increasing the number of facilities in the United States that will accept recycled materials. That would help protect against the wide swings as with the “Chinese Sword” situation in 2018, he added.

As the Center for EcoTechnology explains, the term “Chinese sword” refers to a policy that began on Jan. 1, 2018, which “set strict limits on recyclable materials.” China refused to allow the import of any shipments in which recyclables were mixed with trash and if the materials were of low quality, such as greasy paper goods, for examples.

A University of Buffalo study on the effects of what officially was called the National Sword Policy on the landfill and plastics recycling industry in the United States — published in late March 2022 — found that “the amount of plastic recycled in the U.S. has significantly declined.” Meanwhile, the amount of plastic that goes into landfills “has increased,” the report said.

Amit Goyal, a State University of New York Distinguished Professor, said that the situation “underlines the importance of improving domestic plastic recyclability, recycling rates and reducing contamination.” Goyal made the remarks as a member of the faculty of the University of Buffalo’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director of a multidisciplinary project that was sponsored by New York’s Environmental Protection Fund and the Department of Environmental Conservation, as noted in a news release issued by the University of Buffalo in conjunction with making the report available.

At least in terms of contamination, the city had a much lower rate than the state, as noted in a 2019 study, Kucharski pointed out during the May 9 workshop. The city’s rate was 16%, compared to 27% for the state.

The city’s current recycling contract with Waste Pro allows a contamination rate up to 20%, he said.

“The reason we’ve been able to keep lower processing costs is because of the contamination rate that the city has,” Jeffcoat pointed out.

This is another slide from the May 9 workshop presentation. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When City Manager Marlon Brown asked Kucharski to provide examples of contamination, Kucharski responded, “You would be surprised. We see baby diapers. We see gold chains. We see plates. We see towels, clothing, all different types of things.”

“The participation rate for residential recycling [in the city] is … about 75%,” Kucharski added.

Yet, even if new facilities are established to process recyclable materials in the United States, Jeffcoat told the city commissioners, the cost of transporting the goods to those centers would remain a concern. How close would any of the facilities be to Florida, for example, he asked.

Another big cause of rising expenses, Jeffcoat continued, is supply chain issues, especially in regard to equipment. “We’re seeing 30% cost increases across the board.”

Moreover, Kucharski noted, “It used to take us anywhere from three to six months” to get the trucks needed for the department. “Now, it’s up to a year, 18 months, and that’s just because of the situation that we have in the economy.”

Yet another problem is competition for drivers with commercial licenses (CDLs), Jeffcoat continued. It used to cost the city several hundred dollars for a driver to get such a license, he said. That expense has jumped to “anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000, depending on where we can get [a driver] enrolled … because of the changes in the laws. We are working with other municipalities and other organizations,” he said, “to try to get that cost down, because we’re all impacted by it. But that’s a significant change in regards to the labor market.”