County split into 2 districts for new solid waste franchise contracts, with automated garbage collection beginning in March 2025

Commissioner Rainford fails to convince colleagues to keep Waste Management as provider

This graphic shows the two solid waste districts in the county, for the new agreements going into effect in 2025. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With two votes on March 5, the Sarasota County Commission approved the creation of two districts — North and South — for garbage, recycling and yard waste collections under new, seven-year contracts that will go into effect in the spring of 2025.

The first day of the new service for customers in the unincorporated areas of the county will be Monday, March 31, 2025, Brian Usher, director of the Solid Waste Department, told the board members during his presentation, which was part of the commission’s regular meeting in Venice.

“We were one of the largest collection districts remaining in the state,” he explained, with Waste Management covering all of the unincorporated areas. The residential growth the county has seen, he indicated, was one major factor in the decision to establish the two districts.

Usher also talked about plans for a “significant campaign” to ensure that customers will be ready for the coming changes. The slogan for that campaign is “Fresh Start with a Cart,” he said. A website will be available for customers to get the latest information about the transition, Usher noted. They also will be able to sign up for notifications.

As a result of the commission votes this week, Waste Management no longer will be providing services to customers in unincorporated Sarasota County after March 29, 2025.

The winner of the North District contract was Waste Pro of Florida, which has offices in Clearwater and Fort Myers. A company called FCC Environmental Services will handle the South District.

Charles Merkley, director of municipal sales for FCC Environmental, who addressed the commissioners during the Open to the Public period at the start of the meeting, noted that the company has a corporate office in Palm Beach. FCC Environmental has been serving Florida communities since 2015, he added. Its first contract was with Orange County, Merkley said.

If the firm won the South District contract that day, he noted, “We have property ready to go right here in Venice …”

This graphic shows details about the process that ended with the March 5 votes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Neil Rainford, who represents most of Venice in his District 3 territory, did make a motion to counter the staff recommendation for the South District, calling instead for Waste Management to be awarded the contract. His motion died for lack of a second.

During the Open to the Public period, two members of the public offered plaudits for Waste Management and encouraged the commissioners to allow that company to keep serving county residents. The pointed out that Waste Management has its office in Venice and employs approximately 80 people in South County.

“I’m not quite sure I understand why” county staff would propose taking the contract away from Waste Management, Shari Thornton told the commissioners. She especially praised the company for its efforts in helping with the South County clean-up after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in September 2022. The workers, she said, did “a fantastic job.”

The new contracts also call for automated garbage collection, akin to the collections of recyclable materials in the county, Usher, the Solid Waste Department director, pointed out. The county will provide one garbage cart and one recycling cart to every customer, which will be covered by the annual assessment that customers pay the county, he continued. However, “Some customers may generate more volume” per week than the solitary cart will be able to handle, he said. In those cases, Usher pointed out, the contracts will allow the customers to obtain additional carts, for an extra monthly fee paid to the company handling their service.

In the last quarter of this year, he told the commissioners, customers will be invited to go online to select the size of cart they want. Then the new carts will be delivered in the first quarter of 2025.

Moreover, he said, “We will be able to maintain once-per-week service to our customers on a designated collection day.”

Another facet of the contracts calls for each customer to be entitled to four bulk pickups per year, Usher continued. Those generally entail discarded furniture and appliances, he noted. Each of those collections will accept up to 10 cubic yards of materials at no extra charge, he said. However, if a customer needs more pickups, those can be arranged with the provider at a customer expense outlined in the contracts.

Even with solid waste franchise expenses having risen between 40% and 150% in recent years, Usher stressed that negotiating the best pricing for customers was not staff’s primary concern. “Of utmost importance to us,” he said, “was a focus on customer service, and we achieved that.”

He pointed out that the combined increase in the expense for Sarasota County, reflecting the two new providers’ contracts, is only 24%, compared to the expense of the current countywide Waste Management agreement.

During the negotiations, Usher said, Waste Pro representatives reduced their price by 17%.

For the South District, he also noted, FCC Environmental was “ranked No. 1 throughout the process.”

These are details about FCC Environmental in regard to the agreement negotiations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Usher pointed out, “We will be able to integrate our 311 [Contact Center] system with the service providers,” to facilitate much better communications for customers who have concerns or questions.

Advocacy for Waste Management

Commissioner Rainford was the first board member to ask Usher questions during the discussion.

Among those, Rainford noted that Waste Management has a fleet in Venice. What requirements in regard to the fleet would FCC Environmental have to meet, Rainford inquired.

All of the bidders on the contract were aware that they would need to provide new collection equipment, Usher replied.

Rainford then asked whether consideration was given to the fact that Waste Management might have years of service life remaining for vehicles in its fleet.

Usher reiterated his point that new equipment would be needed, because of the switch to automated garbage collection.

Then Rainford asked whether Waste Pro and FCC Environmental would have sufficient time to obtain the new vehicles.

“I feel confident,” Usher told Rainford, that, after talking with representatives of the firms, they will not have a problem. Enabling them to have sufficient time to get the new equipment was a key reason in asking the County Commission last year to extend the franchise agreement with Waste Management from Sept. 30 of this year to March 2025, Usher pointed out.

Rainford also asked why staff chose to solicit bids through an Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) process.

That process gave him and his staff more flexibility to discuss the terms of the agreement with representatives of interested firms, Usher explained. Many firms have decades of experience in solid waste collections, Usher continued, so staff believed they might have better ideas than staff about various aspects of the service.

When Rainford asked whether any weight in the bid process was given to the fact that Waste Management is a local business, Usher deferred to the county Procurement Official, Jennifer Slusarz. “With an ITN,” Slusarz explained, “we do not consider local or American preference.”

Procurement Official Jennifer Slusarz addresses the commissioners as Brian Usher, the Solid Waste Department director, listens on March 5. News Leader image

Then Rainford pointed out, “We know what the level of service is on the current routes … It’s a complete unknown if we switch providers.”

“I would call that the ‘incumbent factor,’ ” Usher responded, referring to Waste Management. “All three firms [invited for negotiations] were deemed qualified and capable to perform the work,” he continued. “But there are significant changes in the collection agreement.” Among them, he repeated, the routes will be new and the vehicles will be new.

“I really feel like that incumbent factor was really minimized because of the scope of changes,” Usher added.

“I certainly understand why you might minimize it,” Rainford told Usher. “It doesn’t mean I have to minimize it.”

“What role was price in the consideration?” Rainford asked.

“Price was a factor,” Usher replied, but, again, he emphasized that the focus was on customer service.

Chair Michael Moran took the opportunity to inquire about the use of technology, long-term, to address problems customers cite.

“That’s going to be huge,” Usher told him. He and his staff will be able to watch the collections proceed on a map, and video equipment will allow them to see in real time whether a route is missed, for example. “We do not have access to that information now.”

Further, Usher said, he and his staff will be able to look at photos that the companies can provide them, to determine what materials a customer had set out at the curb and how those were handled.

“There’s a lot of ability to be able to communicate better with the service provider,” Usher added.

When Commissioner Joe Neunder talked about the use of technology in ensuring better accountability of a company, Usher replied, “That’s correct.”

Moran asked why some of the technology Usher had described was not being used now. Usher explained that the agreement with Waste Management did not include provisions for that.

This section of the solicitation the county advertised for bids explains expectations about some of the technological features of the new service. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Plaudits for the Solid Waste Department staff

Following the discussion, Rainford made the first motion, to approve the North District contract with Waste Pro, and Commissioner Mark Smith seconded it. That motion passed 5-0.

However, after Rainford failed in his next motion, to award the South District contract to Waste Management, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger made the motion to award it to FCC Environmental Services, and Commissioner Smith seconded it.

“Some of these discussions are really gut-wrenching and very difficult,” Cutsinger said.

One of the first department tours he took after he joined the board in November 2020, Cutsinger continued, involved Solid Waste. He found the staff to be excellent, he added. Then, after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in September 2022, Cutsinger said, he and Usher spoke on the phone every day — including Saturdays and Sundays — “for months,” given all of the damage — and extra collections necessary — in South County.

“The commitment and dedication … and my confidence level in you and your staff,” Cutsinger told Usher, “is very high.

These are the rates that Waste Management proposed for the South District. Image courtesy Sarasota County
These are the rates that FCC Environmental proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He also praised Usher’s negotiating skills. “You cannot read Brian,” Cutsinger said, prompting Usher to laugh.

Usher was the negotiator for the agreements, he told the board members during the presentation. However, he had a member of his staff and Mitch Kessler, principal of Kessler Consulting Inc., which as an office in Tampa, as advisers.

Smith also praised Usher. Then Smith noted his comparisons of a number of the rates detailed in the Waste Management and FCC Environmental bids. That convinced him, Smith said, that FCC Environmental was the right choice for the South District.

Moran concurred with Cutsinger’s remarks.

When Moran called for the vote, Rainford was the only one to say, “No.”