On 4-1 vote, Sarasota City Commission approves rate increases for solid waste customers

Commissioner Arroyo talks of fact that Sarasota County charges less than city

Doug Jeffcoat (left) and Todd Kucharski address the City Commission during the May 9 workshop. News Leader image

On a 4-1 vote this week, on the first reading of the ordinance, the Sarasota city commissioners approved three years of increases in the city’s solid waste fees.

However, Doug Jeffcoat, director of the city’s Public Works Department, pointed out that, during previous discussions, he and the commissioners talked about reducing the proposed 8% hike in the third year to a 4% increase. However, he explained, since the commissioners have not yet approved the city budget for the 2024 fiscal year, he will come back to them about adjusting that third year’s uptick after the budget has been approved.

The first year’s increase — which will go into effect on Oct. 1, the start of the 2024 fiscal year — will be $4.42 for residential customers, bringing the monthly bill to $28.97. Commercial customers — whose monthly bills depend on several factors — will see an 18% increase, he added.

During the second year, the rate for a residential customer will climb 12%, to $32.45. The third year’s fee would be $33.75, with only a 4% adjustment.

The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Sept. 5.

On May 9, when the City Commission conducted a workshop on solid waste issues, Jeffcoat and Todd Kucharski, general manager of the Public Works Department, talked about numerous factors that had necessitated their request for the rate increases. Among them are inflation, supply chain issues and the need to build back up the department’s reserve fund.

At the end of the third year of rate hikes, Jeffcoat reminded the commissioners during their regular meeting on Aug. 21, the department is expected to have three months of operating expenses in its reserve fund.

As part of the commission’s budget discussions in late July, Jeffcoat and his staff presented details showing that the Solid Waste Department was predicted to have $1.1 million more in expenditures than expected in the current fiscal year, which will end on Sept. 30. That total was based on an extra $421,000 in personnel costs and $773,000 in operational expenses, including $477,000 in vehicle maintenance and fuel costs.

This is one of the slides presented during the May 9 workshop on the Solid Waste Department’s financial situation. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the May 9 workshop, Jeffcoat and Kucharski presented information about the aging Solid Waste fleet. For example, 94% of the trucks are more than five years old, and 33% have an age higher than 10. Additionally, they said, the cost of replacement vehicles has risen 40% since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, because of limited production runs by manufacturers.

Further, they noted, the city’s external audit had pointed to the department’s decreasing fund balance.

At the end of this fiscal year, a slide showed, the department also was anticipated to have a fund balance of only $630,000, which would represent just 16% of a three-month reserve that would enable the Solid Waste staff to continue functioning in the wake of a catastrophe, such as a major hurricane. The goal was for the department to have $3.9 million in reserves.

After Jeffcoat concluded his comments on Aug. 21, Commissioner Erik Arroyo asked, “Is the county less expensive than this?”

For residential customers, Jeffcoat replied, “Yes, they are.”

Then Arroyo asked about the potential of seeking a contract with a company that can provide solid waste, recycling and yard waste services. He indicated that it was his understanding that combining all of those responsibilities into one contract could save money.

Based on staff’s experience, Jeffcoat replied, such a contract still would entail a higher expense for the city than handling those services in-house. Counties, he added, are able to find savings by inking such contracts. However, Jeffcoat said, municipalities have not been able to do so. He noted that the Cities of North Port, Venice and Bradenton also handle solid waste services in-house.

“Is there any way to meet our objectives without raising the rates on our residents?” Arroyo asked.

“Not at this point,” Jeffcoat responded.

After Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion to approve the increased rates on first reading, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert seconded it.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo. File image

Arroyo told his colleagues that he would be voting against the ordinance.

Local governments raise money through taxes, fees, special assessments and bonds, he pointed out. “We continue to raise fees.”

“I still think we need to merge with the county,” in terms of solid waste collections, Arroyo said. “We’re already more expensive than the county and now we’re making it even more expensive.”

The only member of the public who addressed the issue during the hearing — Mary Ciner — told the board members that one of her neighbors is a county resident, and that neighbor has a lower annual bill for solid waste than she does. She also called for the City Commission to work on an agreement with Sarasota County to enable the county’s Solid Waste Department to handle city collections.

In response to Arroyo’s comments, Vice Mayor Alpert pointed out, “I agree that … we don’t want to raise prices any more than we have to.” Nonetheless, she continued, the solid waste fee is a “user fee.” City residents who do not use the service do not pay for it, she added. Moreover, she said, the fee “should cover the cost of the service.”

When Mayor Kyle Battie called for the vote, the result was 4-1.