Board members question facets of an interlocal agreement with the county making it necessary for the city to use the county landfill
On a first reading this week, the Sarasota City Commission unanimously approved a $1 increase in the monthly solid waste fee for household residents, as well as changes in commercial customers’ bills. But the vote followed a discussion of how much longer the city is obligated by an interlocal agreement to use the county’s landfill.
Doug Jeffcoat, the city’s public works director, explained that if the city were able to use the Manatee County landfill, it could save about $400,000 a year in fees.
Mayor Willie Shaw asked that staff provide a copy of the interlocal agreement to the city commissioners before they cast their second vote on the solid waste fees. City Manager Tom Barwin promised to do that. A Sarasota News Leader review of the agreement — which county staff provided to the publication this week — shows the document dates to April 2005 and that the agreement will be in effect no longer than Oct. 1, 2021.
City commissioners on Aug. 15 also discussed the potential of moving to a non-ad valorem tax on solid waste instead of charging fees. Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said city staff would start research on such a transition for the Solid Waste Department, but he pointed out that the earliest he believed the switch could be made would be for the 2018 tax bills.
The new solid waste fees will go into effect on Oct. 1 — the start of the 2017 fiscal year — provided the board passes the ordinance upon second reading. The next regular City Commission meeting will be conducted on Tuesday, Sept. 6, because of the Labor Day holiday.
Making the case
During his Aug. 15 presentation, Jeffcoat told the board that this would be the first rate increase for solid waste customers in 10 years. Staff has been able to manage expenses through the city’s contract with Waste Management and through efficiencies in collection process technologies, he said.
However, several factors have led to the necessity of seeking a monthly increase of $1 for residential bills and changes for commercial customers. Among them, he noted, are the decrease in gas tax revenue, which has led to higher street-sweeping expenses; the allocation of reserve funds for the new Lift Station 87 project; reduced income from recycling efforts; and the addition of more staff to handle collections linked to the new multi-family housing and hotels under construction in the city.
The new monthly rate proposed for residential users is $22.66, Jeffcoat added. For commercial users, the recommended new monthly fee for a residential-style cart is $30.89, an increase of $6.88. The latter change takes into account the fact that a customer with such a cart will have his garbage collected twice a week, while residential users get one pickup per week, Jeffcoat explained in a memo provided to the board.
A rate efficiency analysis also showed that commercial tonnage disposed of at the county landfill is double the tonnage from residential customers, the memo notes.
Rate changes for other commercial users will be decreased, increased or stay the same, depending on the size of the containers they use and the number of collections they have each week, the memo adds.
In response to a question Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie raised during the June budget workshops, Brown explained that the city’s solid waste rates are “actually higher” than those of comparable municipalities.
“We have been the highest in the past,” Jeffcoat said, adding, “It is almost impossible to do apples-to-apples comparisons.”
For example, he continued, not all jurisdictions provide carts, “which the [City of Sarasota] does.” Additionally, not all of them allow customers to put out an unlimited amount of bulk and yard waste for collection.
Moreover, he added, “I would say that we are the only jurisdiction I am aware of where … street-sweeping … is part of the solid waste operations.”
He then told the board that if the City of Sarasota paid the same tipping fee that Manatee County charges, it would save about $400,000 a year, though extra expense would be incurred in transporting the materials to Manatee County.
Barwin explained that the tipping fee means the amount of money charged according to the weight of the garbage being disposed of at a given time.
Additionally, Jeffcoat noted, some municipalities charge a non-ad valorem solid waste fee. “That’s a guaranteed revenue stream.”
Shaw interrupted him at that point, asking about the interlocal agreement related to the county landfill. “I’m a bit stunned. How do we revisit this?” Shaw asked.
Jeffcoat explained that the agreement the City of Sarasota and all the other municipalities in the county signed with Sarasota County calls for the cities to pay off the debt of the landfill. The document says that “tipping fees are pledged as security for indebtedness of the Sarasota County Series 1996 Solid Waste System Revenue Bonds or any refunding of said bonds.”
In response to another question from Shaw, Jeffcoat said he did not know how much debt remains. “The county owns the facility,” Jeffcoat said.
“So we’re paying their debt?” Freeland Eddie asked.
“They have the cost of operating the landfill,” Jeffcoat replied, referring to the county. In fact, he pointed out, the county’s solid waste collection division has to pay the same tipping fee for use of the landfill as the municipalities do; the money goes to the division that operates the facility.
That fee is $48.34 per ton, he added. The City of Bradenton pays Manatee County $40 per ton, he said.
In response to another question from Shaw, Jeffcoat explained that the county has privatized its collection services and it bills its customers a non-ad valorem tax. “They generate revenues consistently.”
Unlike the county, Brown noted, the City of Sarasota does provide carts for its solid waste customers. As far as privatization, Brown continued, “We have a lot of legacy costs attached to our employees in [solid waste].”
Nonetheless, Brown said, “I think [the employees] have that added incentive to provide good customer service. I don’t think any one of you have ever heard of our employees not providing topnotch service. All of that comes at a cost.”
When Commissioner Suzanne Atwell asked about the cost of the city’s street-sweeping service, Jeffcoat said the expense budgeted for this fiscal year is about $367,000.
Atwell replied that the service “is very important.”
In response to another question from Freeland Eddie, Jeffcoat said city staff uses a bid process to award the contract for that work.
A switch to a tax?
When Freeland Eddie asked about the potential for a switch to a non-ad valorem tax for solid waste, Jeffcoat explained that in 2006, city staff broached the idea with the City Commission. That group of board members “decided not to move forward,” he added, because many renters and snowbirds were opposed to the proposal.
If the current commissioners want to revisit the issue, he said, “I will be happy to bring that back.”
“The conversation would be beneficial to me,” Shaw told him, adding that he was unaware of the 2006 action.
Barwin then told the commissioners staff would prepare a report on the matter that would include the timeline necessary for implementing such a change.
Shaw said he would like to have that information, but he was more concerned about the interlocal agreement regarding the landfill.
The $400,000 Jeffcoat cited as savings in tipping fees “could almost help us with what we pay for Robert Taylor,” Shaw noted, referring to the city’s recreational complex in north Sarasota.
Earlier this year, the County Commission declined to provide $984,000 the City Commission requested to help cover the facility’s operating expenses for the 2017 fiscal year. City staff has cited statistics showing that about 60 percent of the users of the complex over the past five years have been residents of areas outside the city limits. However, county commissioners pointed to the expiration of another interlocal agreement through which it had helped subsidize the facility’s operations for five years.
Shaw said he understood that in spite of their questions, the city commissioners needed to proceed with a vote on the recommended new solid waste fees.
If the city ended up changing to a non-ad valorem tax for its solid waste service, Brown told the board members, they could adjust the user fees in the future, if necessary.
With no members of the public signed up to offer comments, Shaw called for a motion. Atwell made it, and it passed 5-0.